News·9 min read

How COVID-19 Affected Americans' Physical and Mental Health in 2021

Special Edition Newsletter: 2021 Year in Health
December 27, 2021

2021 was supposed to be better than 2020. Jury’s still out on that one. But this much we know: We’re there for you when it comes to breaking down what happened in the last day, week, month, or even the year. So here’s this year and wellness.

Hit Me With Your Best Shots

COVID-19 has boomerang'd back into our lives
Chanelle Nibbelink

The Story

I got 99 problems and COVID-19…is still one of them.


This year, the FDA said, ‘Shots, everybody.’ Vaccines (the word of the year) went to adults and teens, and then to kids over five, who got a lower dose but at a higher rate (about 10% got their first dose within the first two weeks of authorization). Infection rates dropped after spiking around the end of summer (thanks to that big D — Delta — which wasn’t the only new variant in town this year). And adults got the greenlight to mix and match with their booster shot after six months of being vaxxed (the CDC says to get Pfizer or Moderna’s over Johnson & Johnson’s). For a while, things were looking up.

Hit me with the ‘but…’

There's a lot of it. Especially with “variant of concern” Omicron, which became the dominant strain in the US (accounting for 73% of new cases) last week. It's spread so quickly that infection rates have now surpassed the summer surge. Scientists are still figuring out how effective vaccines are against it. And whether Omicron causes milder infections, like early data seems to show in South Africa, England, and Scotland. Breakthrough cases (aka when you get COVID-19 even after you're vaxxed) can happen with all the variants. But Omicron seems to be particularly able to cause them. And research from the UK and Israel indicates boosters are the way to go: Three doses may reduce cases of symptomatic disease by as much as 75%. So far, nearly 32% of the US population has been boosted.

Should I be worried?

Focusing on staying informed might be a better move, because there’s more info to come on the latest strain. And more potential treatments that could help, like Merck and Pfizer’s antiviral pills. But the coronavirus does remain a major threat. Particularly for the immunocompromised and the unvaccinated – the latter are 10 times more likely to test positive and 20 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those fully vaxxed and boosted. Yes, the FDA gave the thumbs up for emergency use of three vaccines available in the US. Still, the US is not at herd immunity (that’s when a large enough portion of the country is immune to the disease, making person-to-person spread less likely). 

Will we ever reach it?

It’s unclear. One group that has particularly low vaccination rates: pregnant people (about 40% are vaxxed, despite being more likely to get seriously sick if they contract COVID) and rates are even lower for Black and Hispanic pregnant people. Systemic racism and sexism in health care are factors. Things that haven’t helped: vaccine hesitancy and misinformation. As many as 20% of American adults have indicated that they will continue to refuse to get vaxxed. And it's not the only polarizing topic. Enter: debates about children masking up at school (the rules differ by state and even by school district), vaccine mandates (employers can require them), and mask requirements in public spaces (which fluctuated throughout the year). Here are tips based on the CDC’s latest guidelines, and how you can politely ask someone if they’re vaccinated. 

So now what?

Going on two years into pandemic life, we’re all still adjusting mentally and physically. Many of us felt the thrill and stress of starting to hang out IRL again. And a number of people — children included — dealt with anxiety before they returned to class and work. Living through a pandemic has impacted everything, including parentingexercising, working (from home), and how we see ourselves (Zoom face is real). Some side effects of spending more time inside: body image took a hit and a number of eating disorders were triggered. Drug overdose deaths (mostly from opioids) topped six figures for the first time over a 12-month period. And we learned there could be long-term effects of getting COVID-19, from experiencing brain fog to organ damage.  


It looks like COVID-19 is coming with us into 2022. And at this point, there’s not an area of our lives the virus hasn’t impacted. While science says that getting the vaccine is the safest choice for those eligible, many are still hesitant. So you might not want to toss your masks just yet.

Mental Health Discussions Got Louder…

Checklist of what burnout can feel like
Photo: iStock | Design: theSkimm

Let’s be real, the pandemic has been all kinds of tough — for everyone. As it dragged into this year, two in five adults told the CDC that they felt symptoms of depression or anxiety. And taking care of mental health rose to the top of everyone’s to-do list, with one prominent survey showing that more people strongly agree it’s just as important as physical health. Many of us experienced languishing, too. For better or worse, some turned to therapists on TikTok to help cope with their feelings. The collective rallying cry became ‘enough is enough.’ But many mental health professionals struggled to keep up with the demand.

  • Who put themselves out there...First there was Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry, where they spoke about choosing their mental health over living in the royal family. Lizzo tearfully opened up on TikTok, while Adele said working out helped her manage her anxiety. And Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles (Time’s athlete of the year) said ‘see ya next time’ when they decided to put their wellbeing first and drop out of the French Open and Olympic team gymnastics event, respectively. So basically everyone said, ‘Go easy on me, baby.’  

  • Hello, burnout, who let you in? In an April survey by McKinsey, 49% of people said they felt at least somewhat burned out. And that’s probably a low estimate, considering people who are burned out would probably say ‘hard pass’ to completing a survey. A record number of people quit their jobs in September. More than at any other time since recording began in 2000. And it was those working directly with customers that said ‘buh-bye’ to their bosses the most (think: hotels, restaurants, and retail). WFH also blurred the boundaries between work life and life (more on that here). And faced with the ‘Great Resignation,’ some companies decided it was time to change things up. Like Bumble giving employees a week off twice a year and Kickstarter planning to try out four-day workweeks next year. Also, let’s not forget about the childcare burdens and other invisible labor that many women have taken on. Overwhelmed? Here’s why you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. And if you’re feeling burned out, our guide can help.

  • Time to put some joy on the cal...This year was a lot, and we all deserve to have a better 2022. Sign up for our second annual How to Skimm Your Life New Year’s Challenge, and we’ll text you throughout the month with small ways to add happiness into your daily routine.

Fighting For the Right(s)

Map of state-by-state restrictions on abortion
Source: Guttmacher Institute

“Land of the Free” got some caveats this year. Whether it was transgender rights or reproductive rights, restrictions and controversies cropped up in a polarized country and Supreme Court.

  • Reproductive rights...Took a biiig hit. As in, there have been more abortion restrictions passed or proposed this year than any other. Texas passed a law that bans abortions as soon as a ‘fetal heartbeat’ is detected (as early as six weeks). It allows private citizens to enforce the law through suing violators. Key distinction: private citizens. Not state officials. The law had many up in arms, including the Biden admin, whose DOJ filed a lawsuit (which the Supreme Court later dismissed). Now, all eyes are on Mississippi. The Supreme Court heard the case over a MS law that bans abortions at 15 weeks this month. The majority-conservative bench has signaled it could roll back, if not overturn, the legal precedent set by Roe v. Wade. Their decision (expected in June 2022) could have widespread implications for abortion laws in roughly half of states (see: trigger laws). Celebrities have spoken out. Notably, Uma Thurman revealed her own abortion as a teen in an op-ed

  • Transgender rights...This year is on track to become the deadliest year on record for trans Americans, with Black trans women particularly impacted. At least 33 states introduced bills that aim to curb the rights of transgender people. Arkansas passed a law that allows health care workers to refuse to treat someone based on moral or religious grounds. And then it became the first state to ban gender-affirming medical treatments for minors. (that law has been temporarily halted…for now.) Multiple states also banned or limited transgender athletes from competing in sports consistent with their gender identities. The mental health impacts of trans discrimination are severe, and it’s not just LGBTQ+ Americans dealing with it — many countries still criminalize same-sex relations.

Family Matters

Graph of number of births 2005-2020
Source: CDC

Your Insta feed may be full of kids, but the stats tell a more nuanced story. Fallout from a global pandemic — possibly coupled with parental leave policies (or lack thereof) — made this year a unique snapshot for American families. 

  • Birth rates...Oh, baby. We are in the middle of a baby bust, not boom — thanks to both COVID-19 and year-over-year trends. Think: millennials getting married later, childcare costs, and lack of paid parental leave (that’s still being negotiated on the Hill). Because ICYMI, the US is the only wealthy country in the world without a national paid family leave policy. Now, the number of babies a woman in America is projected to have during her lifetime is 1.64, the lowest rate ever recorded. New moms are trending older, too — the mean reproductive life span in women is believed to have increased to 37 from 35 over the years. Despite a dip in babymaking, people are still letting the dogs out: pet ownership is on the rise, with more than 20 million American households getting a furry friend since the start of COVID-19. 

PS: theSkimm is fighting for better paid leave for allSign our petition, then spread the word. And click here to stay updated on more Well content from theSkimm.

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