Like 9/11, COVID-19 has stripped away Americans' sense of security as they wonder how safe they really are

NEW YORK – Wendy Lanski says she had "an irrational fear of supermarkets."

She got sick with COVID-19 in March, and while she can't pinpoint her exact exposure, her hunch was that it was the grocery store.

She almost died in her battle against the disease – and she is one of many "long haulers," or COVID-19 survivors with lingering symptoms such as irregular heartbeat and partial hair loss.

Lanski, 50, also survived another national tragedy that reshaped how many Americans view their sense of safety: the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"I think there are a lot of parallels," Lanski said of the two seminal moments in modern history. Both caused Americans to praise and better appreciate first responders, she said. Some believe both are a hoax or a government conspiracy.

And both have led to changes in behavior in everyday lives that may or may not be making us safer. Does the size of a toothpaste tube really matter in helping thwart terrorist plots? Are temperature checks stopping the spread of the coronavirus? Or do we just feel more secure?

People's behavior may be governed by their perception of risk, regardless of whether that's in line with actual risk, when there is a crisis, says Dr. Joshua Morganstein, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster.

"It is one thing to be safe, and it is another thing to feel safe," Morganstein said.

Lanski remembers flying for the first time after 9/11, five months after the attacks. Someone was complaining about the security line taking a long time. She took her World Trade Center ID card.

"I said, 'Here's why, buddy. ... You just need to take it down a notch.'"

Wendy Lanski survived the 9/11 terror attacks and a battle with COVID-19.
Wendy Lanski survived the 9/11 terror attacks and a battle with COVID-19.

Security measures, risk assessments are similar

As the U.S. coronavirus case count continues to rise, many Americans continue to take precautions to prevent the spread while also boosting their sense of security – not unlike the safety and security measures some took and changes in behavior that occurred after 9/11.

After the terror attacks, airport security beefed up. Some feared large gatherings as potential next targets. People avoided traveling. Today, amid the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans steer clear of big groups that could be potential "super spreader" events. Some airports screen for people's temperatures to detect a fever. And the travel industry has faced steep declines.

"Maybe now the era of September 11th has given way to the era of COVID-19 or pandemic," said Jan Ramirez, chief curator of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

"They both felt sort of unprecedented in scale. They both felt novel and almost implausible up until that point," she added. "What emerged quickly after was an almost different collective reality."

For Emiliano Diaz de Leon, 44, wiping down every item he gets from grocery deliveries or letting packages sit in his garage for three days before bringing them in is all about reducing the risk of infection for himself and his family.

His 11-year-old son tried to show him a news article recently that said surfaces are not the primary way the new coronavirus spreads and they'd be fine if some of his birthday presents could come inside a few days earlier.

Diaz de Leon wasn't buying it. "He's a sharp kid," the Texas father said. "He wanted to open his gifts."

One reason Diaz de Leon says he began to take such precautions was that it was so unclear in the early days of the pandemic what the best practices were. So doing more, rather than less, gives him "peace of mind."

Taking precautions has become a way of life in the years after 9/11 and now in the new era of the coronavirus pandemic.
Taking precautions has become a way of life in the years after 9/11 and now in the new era of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ramirez said, many people after 9/11 looked seriously at what level of risk they could tolerate as the threat of another terror attack prompted new behaviors.

Office buildings ordered deep cleanings to scrub the toxic debris, and some wore masks and gloves amid conflicting reports about the air quality around Ground Zero, Ramirez said. "On a weekly basis, the kind of malevolence of the dust started to change," she added, as more evidence pointed to its dangers.

Some who could afford to moved out of New York City, others purchased personal protective equipment or gas masks in case of a bioterror attack, and many feared traveling on public transportation, Ramirez said.

It wasn't uncommon to see members of the National Guard in New York City or caution tape around a suspicious bag, she added.

"We'll never know the number of potential plots thwarted," Ramirez said.

Is it a bad thing if you just feel safer?

In the beginning days of the pandemic, scientists weren't always sure of the source of people's exposure to the coronavirus, said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a hospital epidemiologist and pediatric infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins.

Now, the medical community has a better sense of where cases come from and how the virus primarily spreads via respiratory droplets. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is possible to become infected after touching an infected surface and then your face, contracting the virus from a grocery store item "I would say those are very, very low-risk exposures," Milstone said.

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But taking similar extra precautions is not necessarily a bad thing; they just need to be done correctly, said Dr. Kristin Englund, an infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. For example, wearing gloves, which the CDC does not recommend for most people, will not keep you safer if you then touch your face or cellphone, Englund said.

Temperature checks won't weed out people who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic, and wearing an extra layer of clothes while out in public may also have no effect because there is no evidence the virus spreads via clothing, Englund said.

"While people may come up with other measures to take to decrease their risk, what they need to be sure is whatever they're doing makes sense and they're doing them correctly," Englund said.

But just because a behavior may go beyond what is necessary, it could be beneficial if it makes people feeler safer, Morganstein said.

"Believing you are safe confers significant health benefits," Morganstein said. A feeling of safety during a crisis can help reduce the likelihood of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, aid in sleep and lower the chance of turning to alcohol or drugs, he said.

"It would behoove all of us to accept and support people engaging in behaviors that are not harmful to us and allow people to achieve a certain level of safety and comfort," he said.

Social distancing, masks still a 'matter of choice' in the US

In the weeks and months that followed 9/11, letters from children and people all over the world began pouring in for first responders who rushed to Ground Zero.

Many of those letters made a difference on the psyche of those people, Ramirez said.

"There was this huge resurgence of appreciation for the value of human life and the awe for the kind of common-sense grit and abilities and resourcefulness of essential workers and front-line workers," Ramirez said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ramirez has seen a similar return to appreciating front-line workers.

Many in her neighborhood in New York City would come outside at a certain time and provide a round of applause for doctors, nurses and other hospital workers.

A message of being a good citizen or being a good neighbor can be very motivating for some people to take health precautions that keep others safe, such as wearing a mask, Morganstein said.

For Lisa Delgado, 55, of Philadelphia, wearing a mask is like taking off your shoes at the airport.

"I don't like it, but I do it. It's a pain, but having innocent people die is a bigger deal than my inconvenience," she said.

But while you can't skip the airport security line, you can go some places and not wear a mask. Englund said the lack of more systematic mandates marks a key difference between Americans' responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and 9/11.

"After 9/11 when every airport had to initiate this screening, I think there was a normalcy to it," Englund said. "It's something we all know, that we have to get to the airport a little earlier. ... That is not the place that we're at right now. It's still a matter of choice in many areas."

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Diaz de Leon said it's "frustrating" and "heartbreaking and disturbing" to see others around him not doing the bare minimum for COVID-19 safety.

"I don't expect people to do what I'm doing, but if people will practice social distancing and wear a mask, I would feel so much better about the future and the sense of value for their life and my life," he said.

Nearly 770,000 lives would be saved worldwide from early September to Jan. 1 with near-universal mask wearing and social distancing, according to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

"If we could get everyone to do the basics, we could cut down dramatically on the number of COVID cases ... and then people wouldn't have to go to the extremes," Englund said.

For Lanski, returning to normal life after her time battling COVID-19 in the hospital is all about common sense and feeling empowered.

As she recovered and learned more about the virus, she began expanding where she went and what she did. While she avoids certain grocery stores, she feels OK in the drive-through pharmacy. Some restaurants in the next town over look too cramped, so she only goes to one where she knows the owner, is always seated 6 feet from the next table outside and sees all employees wearing masks correctly.

When she first was released from the hospital, Lanksi had items delivered to her door, but it was her husband's birthday that got her out of the house to grocery-shop.

"I was trying to get just something special," she said. So she ran into Whole Foods, quickly, at an off hour, for a treat.

"I'm playing the odds here," she recalled thinking, but "I'm not going to die buying this cheesecake."

Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID, September 11: Are security measures making us safer