WHEELING — Laura Hitchman leaves no time to fret about virus variants inside her super-heated Elm Grove yoga studio. Ditto for all the other things that are making Americans of every stripe grit their teeth.
Clients stay in constant motion — arching spines, flexing limbs, hot-footing up and down the short length of their mats. They stop only for a brief self-hug and to share an “om” that resonates so loudly it suggests a match to the 90-degree room’s own frequency.
Hot yoga — a vigorous form of the practice that requires the steamy setting — is intense all the time, but the OV Power Yoga owner said there’s a recent change. She pegs the pivot on last summer — around the time COVID cases began to climb again.
“We have definitely seen an uptick in attendance,” Hitchman said of needing to suddenly revamp her schedule and programming focus to meet the need. “They want to exercise. They want to move. I think they value the body now, their overall optimal health.”
Hitchman — one of several community members engaged in mental, physical or spiritual health who contributed to this COVID check-up — said the increase seems to be more about coping rather than trying to lose weight.
Clients — some of whom participate on a near-daily basis — tell her they are experiencing depression, anxiety and, in some cases, grief, she said. It’s not uncommon for someone to cry during class.
Leaders from other sectors of the community — a dietician, a pastor, a church lay member and an emergency room physician — echoed her observations. It seems that, all over town and in all kinds of ways, COVID is stretching people to new limits.
TO THE PEW
The spiritual orientation might be different — yoga is historically associated with Eastern faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism — but two voices from the church community expressed similar thoughts to Hitchman’s.
Chris Figaretti, lead pastor of the Vineyard Church in Wheeling, said he has also seen an increased interest in spiritual wholeness since the pandemic began. This is in spite of a lengthy period of time in which services were only offered remotely.
“Church attendance continues to be strong and live attendance grew even more in November and December,” Figaretti said in an email response. “More and more people are coming back to live services.”
He thinks this return is tied to what he called “COVID fatigue.”
“(People) … are just done isolating after two years of this,” he said. “The draw of faith and community is wired deep into the human soul, and you can only suppress it for so long.”
Another church voice, lay member Judi Meyer of Metropolitan Baptist Church in South Wheeling, sees that spiritual need as one that can be linked hand in hand with physical wellness.
Meyer recently began an open-ended workshop — 2022: A Healthier You — on health topics such as lifestyle-based disease prevention, whole foods, exercise and stress reduction. It meets Wednesdays in the church’s fellowship hall.
“I’m sharing what I have learned from experience,” Meyer said, noting she is not a medical professional but has a longtime interest in wellness. “What I have found is that health can be greatly impacted by diet and exercise.”
While the juxtaposition of Christianity and health has become a political hot potato during COVID — and the workshop will not present a viewpoint on COVID vaccinations — Meyer sees no conflict in being both spiritually and physically well.
“Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. I think it’s important to be a good steward of that,” Meyer said, noting the timing for talking about health is good for her and for the larger community. “I think people are concerned (about overall health) more than ever … Life is so unpredictable and, in reality, it always has been.”
THE OTHER FRONT LINE
While some sectors of the community are dealing with whatever spiritual and emotional needs COVID has brought to the surface, two voices from the medical arena are a reminder that the physical side of the pandemic is still very much an issue.
Theresa Brinsky, a dietician at Howard Long Wellness Center, said she has seen multiple parts of a health spectrum related to the virus.
She’s helping some patients who are motivated to rein in known risk factors for severe COVID complications — advising them on how to implement the highly regarded Mediterranean diet, for example. She’s also tube feeding some patients who have already succumbed to the point they are on ventilators — trying to keep them alive.
Between those extremes, Brinsky is also dealing with a new crop of type 2 diabetes patients suddenly facing a chronic illness post virus. It’s a possible connection scientists believe may be linked to COVID attacking insulin-producing parts of the pancreas, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“They’re overwhelmed … they don’t know what to do,” Brinsky said of the sudden diabetes cases, many of whom she said are already at a healthy weight. “They’ve been sick with COVID and now they have this new diagnosis.”
As tough as the COVID gambit has been, Brinsky has hopes that it will provide a long-lasting wakeup call for the entire community.
“I’m a high, high advocate for preventive measures,” she said. “And, I think nutrition is an important part of that.”
At the very front of the front lines, emergency physician Dr. Neal Aulick is also hoping people will go for prevention. Be it masking, isolating or vaccinating, he said the community needs to do whatever can be done to keep people out of hospitals.
“We’re overrun. We have no place to send patients,” said Aulick, who staffs emergency departments at both Reynolds Memorial Hospital and Wetzel County Hospital, both part of the WVU Medicine system.
Aulick said hospitals are short on staff, space and some supplies, although there’s just enough blood for now. “We’re basically in daily disaster mode.”
Stressed since the delta variant of COVID arrived late last summer, Aulick said the omicron variant has been exhausting.
While omicron is less likely to lead to severe COVID complications, he said it has infected more people more quickly. This has led to surges of hospitalizations, intubations and deaths and is making it hard for hospitals to care for patients — COVID and those with other emergency conditions.
He’s hoping local cases will follow a pattern seen in South Africa — where cases seem to have dropped as the virus runs out of new people to infect — and give staff a break.
“I just really haven’t had time for a breakdown,” he said of coping with his own emotional state. “I’ve got a job to do and I’ve got to do it.”