COVID caused ‘loneliness epidemic’: NYC health commissioner

It’s the alone-avirus.

With COVID-19 restrictions easing across the US, the nation is feeling the psychological fallout of being isolated for years on end. In a Wednesday op-ed published on CNBC.com, outgoing New York City health commissioner Dr. Dave A. Chokshi declared “an epidemic of loneliness” amid reports that forlorn feelings had skyrocketed following the coronavirus quarantine.

“The full toll of the pandemic on our emotional health is becoming clearer,” wrote Chokshi, whose official title is the commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Chokshi cited citywide health surveys, which found that “57% of residents felt lonely some of the time or often, and 67% felt socially isolated in the prior four weeks.”

“Only a third of respondents said they could count on someone for emotional support,” he continued in the PSA. “And at the same time, one in five respondents reported symptoms of depression.”

Chokshi, who finishes his two-year tenure this month, claimed that the loneliness epidemic disproportionately affected “people in marginalized communities, because unequal access to food, housing, education and health care impacts a sense of belonging.”

“The full toll of the pandemic on our emotional health is becoming clearer,” wrote Dr. Dave Chokshi, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

These findings were in line with a survey from the early height of the pandemic in April 2020, in which 53% of Americans said they had felt lonely or isolated within the past week — a purported increase from before the coronavirus. Experts blamed the nationwide stay-at-home measures, which turned normally bustling cities like NYC into ghost towns and left people socially marooned for months on end.

However, the forlornness scourge was reportedly a problem long before the COVID pandemic.

“Loneliness has been hiding in plain sight for years in America,” the commissioner wrote. “Rigorous scientific studies on the negative health effects of loneliness and social isolation exist — yet public health action has remained uneven.”

Isolation as a public health issue “has kind of been swept under the rug,” according to Dr. Ada Stewart, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Indeed, there is currently no formal medical diagnosis and no mandate to screen for loneliness.

New York City health commissioner Dave Chokshi speaks during a news conference earlier this month in which mayor Eric Adams announced the scaling back of COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates within the city.New York City health commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi speaks during a news conference earlier this month in which mayor Eric Adams announced the scaling back of COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates within the city.AP

Perhaps one silver lining of the pandemic is that it brought the condition to light: “Now the pandemic has unveiled it,” Stewart said. “This is real.”

The situation is particularly dire as loneliness’ effects aren’t limited to feeling blue. Evidence has linked self-isolation with physical changes including inflammation and elevated stress hormones that may tighten blood vessels and increase blood pressure.

Meanwhile, a groundbreaking 2020 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that both loneliness and hunger trigger deep centers of the human brain eliciting feelings of desire and craving. They say their findings suggest that the need for social interaction is as primordial as the need to eat.

In order to combat the scourge, “we must seize the opportunity to prioritize America’s emotional health — and to talk about belonging and connection as vital to our well-being,” wrote Chokshi.

Citywide health surveys, found that Citywide health surveys found that “57% of residents felt lonely some of the time or often, and 67% felt socially isolated in the prior four weeks.”Noam Galai

“We cannot risk snapping back to a ‘normal’ where loneliness fades back into the shadows,” he continued. “And just raising awareness of isolation isn’t enough. We need to apply public health interventions to better understand it and mitigate it.”

Some of the health commissioner’s proposed anti-loneliness initiatives include holding regular community events to facilitate social interaction and even having care providers meet people in their communities rather than having patients go to them.

“Public health must work together with residents to plan programs which improve social connections,” declared the commissioner.

Chokshi cited the East Harlem Neighborhood Action Center in Manhattan, which has a “baby café” for parent get-togethers, cooking classes, walking groups and even a community health clinic. He feels this model can be re-created in a variety of public spaces from the community garden to the YMCA.

“Loneliness has been hiding in plain sight for years in America,” wrote Chokshi. “Rigorous scientific studies on the negative health effects of loneliness and social isolation exist — yet public health action has remained uneven.”Noam Galai

Elsewhere in the state of emergency address, the public servant stressed the importance of public education “destigmatizing” isolation, writing, “In New York City, we recently launched a loneliness campaign with a message to ‘Check in. Listen. Connect.’ ”

He added, “It appears on subways, bus shelters, and newspapers in every community and on TV and radio, and, importantly, includes a phone number for anyone to reach out and ask for help when they need it.”

The commissioner also implored the “CDC, epidemiologists, the public, and public health professionals” to amass better data regarding “the ‘who’ ‘what’ ‘when’ and ‘where’ of America’s loneliness epidemic.”

“With new research, we can create evidence-based policies and measure loneliness as a public health issue,” he wrote.

“With new research, we can create evidence-based policies and measure loneliness as a public health issue,” he wrote. Alexi Rosenfeld

In a novel measure across the Pacific ocean, Japan appointed a minister of loneliness in 2021 to try and combat its exploding suicide rate amid COVID-19.

Unfortunately, isolation wasn’t the only psychological side effect of the pandemic, which reportedly caused a spike in everything from depression to eating disorders among survivors of the coronavirus.