As a health journalist, a physician, and a former foreign correspondent who lived through SARS in Beijing, I often get questions from friends, colleagues and people I don’t even know about how to live during the pandemic.
Do I think it’s safe to plan a real wedding next June? Would I send my kids to school, with appropriate precautions? When will I trust a vaccine?
To the last question, I always answer: When I see Anthony Fauci take one.
Like many Americans, I take my signals from Dr. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert and a member of the White House task force on the coronavirus. When he told the Washington Post that he was not wiping down packages but just letting them sit for a couple of days, I started doing the same. In October, he remarked that he was bringing shopping bags into the house. He merely washes his hands after unpacking them. (Me, too!)
Now we are in a dangerous political transition, with cases spiking in much of the country and Fauci and the original task force largely sidelined. President-elect Joe Biden has appointed his own.
The past tumultuous months have been filled with information gaps (we’re still learning about the coronavirus), misinformation (often from the president) and a host of “experts” — public health folks, mathematical modelers, cardiologists and emergency room doctors like me — offering opinions on TV. But all this time, the person I’ve most wanted to hear from is Fauci. He’s a straight shooter, with no apparent conflicts of interest — political or financial — or, at 79, career ambition. He seemingly has no interests other than yours and mine.
So I asked him how Americans might expect to live in the next six to nine months. How should we behave? And what should the next administration do? Some answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
There were some states in some regions of the country that somehow didn’t seem to have learned the lessons that could have been learned or should have been learned when New York City and other big cities got hit. And that is to do some fundamental public health measures.
I want to really be explicit about this, because whenever I talk about simple things like uniform wearing of masks, keeping physical distance, avoiding crowds (particularly indoors), doing things outdoors to the extent possible with the weather, and washing hands frequently, that doesn’t mean shutting down the country. You can still have a considerable amount of leeway for business, for economic recovery, if you just do those simple things. But what we’re seeing, unfortunately, is a very disparate response to that. And that inevitably leads to the kind of surges that we see now.
I think that there should be universal wearing of masks. If we can accomplish that with local mayors, governors, local authorities, fine. If not, we should seriously consider national. The only reason that I shy away from making a strong recommendation in that regard is that things that come from the national level down generally engender a bit of push-back from an already reluctant populace that doesn’t like to be told what to do. So you might wind up having the counter-effect of people pushing back even more.
The reason I answer with some degree of trepidation is because the people who are the proprietors of these businesses start getting very, very upset with me. There are some essential businesses that you want to keep open. You want to keep grocery stores open, supermarkets open, things that people need for their subsistence. You might, if it’s done properly, keep open some nonessential businesses, you know, things like clothing stores, department stores.
If we’re in the hot zone the way we are now, where there’s so many infections around, I would feel quite uncomfortable even being in a restaurant. And particularly if it was at full capacity.
» Here are Philly’s current COVID-19 guidelines: inquirer.com/phillyguidelines
I mean, again, it depends. I used to get a haircut every five weeks. I get a haircut every 12 weeks now — with a mask on me, as well as a mask on the person who’s cutting the hair, for sure.
It depends on your individual circumstances. If you are someone who is in the highest risk category, as best as possible, don’t travel anywhere. Or if you go someplace, you have a car, you’re in your car by yourself, not getting on a crowded subway, not getting on a crowded bus or even flying in an airplane. If you’re a 25-year-old who has no underlying conditions, that’s much different.
Bars are really problematic. I have to tell you, if you look at some of the outbreaks that we’ve seen, it’s when people go into bars, crowded bars. You know, I used to go to a bar. I used to like to sit at a bar and grab a hamburger and a beer. But when you’re at a bar, people are leaning over your shoulder to get a drink, people next to each other like this. It’s kind of fun because it’s social, but it’s not fun when this virus is in the air. So I would think that if there’s anything you want to clamp down on, for the time being, it’s bars.
If you’re negative when you get on the plane — except in the rare circumstance that you’re in that little incubation window before you turn positive — that’s a good thing.
Surveillance testing. Literally flooding the system with tests. Getting a home test that you could do yourself, that’s highly sensitive and highly specific. And you know why that would be terrific? Because if you decided that you wanted to have a small gathering with your mother-in-law and father-in-law and a couple of children, and you had a test right there.
It isn’t 100%. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But the risk that you have — if everyone is tested before you get together to sit down for dinner — dramatically decreases. It might not ever be zero but, you know, we don’t live in a completely risk-free society.
It’s pretty easy when you have vaccines that are 95% effective. Can’t get much better than that. I think what people need to appreciate — and that’s why I have said it like maybe 100 times in the last week or two — is the process by which a decision is made. The company looks at the data. I look at the data.
Then the company puts the data to the FDA. The FDA will make the decision to do an emergency use authorization or a license application approval. And they have career scientists who are really independent. They’re not beholden to anybody. Then there’s another independent group, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. The FDA commissioner has vowed publicly that he will go according to the opinion of the career scientists and the advisory board.
No, I don’t think so. I think a new administration will have the choice of doing what they feel. But I can tell you what’s going to happen, regardless of the transition or not, is that we have people totally committed to doing it right that are going to be involved in this. So I have confidence in that.