For most of 2020, the little socializing Anthony Fauci did involved the neighbors right next door.
Fauci has lived in the same neighborhood in northwest Washington, DC for more than 40 years, and the combination of his busy schedule and pandemic safety concerns confined his social life to a small radius.
“I haven’t gotten the day off in a year and three months,” Fauci told me recently.
When Fauci and his wife did gather with neighbors, they took no chances: The households stayed socially distanced and outdoors, even in the fall and winter when the weather got chilly.
“Whenever we would get together, we would do it outside, freezing our butts off, wearing a mask, having a dinner or having a drink outside on my deck,” he said.
Then Fauci, who has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, got vaccinated. In a much-photographed moment (see above), he got his first Moderna shot on December 22. In the months that followed, others in his age bracket followed suit.
Being fully vaccinated, Fauci said, has changed his behavior — but only slightly.
The biggest shift is that he and his neighbors have finally moved the party indoors: “We feel very comfortable in the house with no masks, and we can have physical contact and things like that,” he said.
But for now, he still won’t eat indoors at a restaurant or go to a movie theater.
“I don’t think I would — even if I’m vaccinated — go into an indoor, crowded place where people are not wearing masks,” Fauci said.
He’s not planning any travel, either: “I don’t really see myself going on any fun trips for a while,” he said.
Fauci’s caution, he said, stems from the “interesting crossroads” at which the US sits.
A record number of people are getting vaccinated per day — 3 million doses are now given daily, on average — but the number of new infections being reported is still trending upward in 18 states. In Michigan, one of the worst hotspots, average daily cases have more than quadrupled in the last month.
“It’s kind of a race between the vaccine and the possibility that there’ll be another surge,” Fauci said. So the more Americans are patient about their return to normal life, he added, the less likely we are to see a fourth case spike.
Fauci won’t go indoors where people aren’t wearing masks
Like 64 million other Americans, Fauci is regularly assessing what is safe and unsafe as a vaccinated person in a country in which four out of every five people are not yet fully vaccinated. Rising US case rates complicate matters. In the last week, an average of more than 65,000 new cases have been reported per day — a 14% increase from the country’s seven-day average in mid-March.
Given all that, Fauci said his day-to-day life remains essentially unchanged from what it was before he got his shots. He does not see being vaccinated as a green light to resume the myriad activities he and the rest of us have been deprived of.
Movie theaters where viewers remove their masks to snack on popcorn? Nope.
“That would still be of concern to me,” Fauci said.
Bars and restaurants where maskless people are eating and drinking inside? Those are still off the table, too.
Fauci’s behavior aligns with CDC guidelines, which say that vaccinated Americans should continue to wear a mask in public at all times and avoid medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings.
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, bars and restaurants are particularly risky. A recent CDC study found that a rural Illinois bar was the site of a superspreader event. At least 46 COVID-19 cases, one hospitalization, and a school closure affecting 650 children were linked to the bar’s reopening in February.
‘Keeping a lid’ on cases requires patience
Not all experts agree with Fauci and the CDC’s levels of caution.
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician in Baltimore, previously told Insider that the CDC guidelines for vaccinated people are “overly cautious.”
“For individuals who are fully vaccinated, they may well decide to take on risk that other people may not be engaging in,” she said. “So having policies to allow certain things back, I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing.”
Still, Fauci said it’s important for all Americans — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — to continue avoiding crowds and socially distancing until we know for sure that vaccinated people don’t spread the virus. Growing evidence suggests they don’t, but being patient is how we’ll “keep a lid” on this thing, Fauci said.
Fauci has estimated that the threshold for herd immunity — the point at which enough Americans are either vaccinated or immune to the virus from an infection to stymie its overall spread — could be between 70% and 85% of the population.
“If we could just hold on for a while,” he said, “we’ll reach a point where the protection of the general community by the vaccine would really make it very unlikely that we’re going to have another surge.”
Vaccination rates in the US have doubled every month since February. If that trend continues, the country could reach that threshold as early as June.
So for Fauci, nights out on the town can wait until then.
The CDC says traveling is ok, but Fauci won’t do it
The CDC announced Friday that vaccinated Americans can travel by plane, train, or bus in the US without needing to quarantine or get tested, as long as they wear masks.
I was thrilled, since the change meant I could finally make a plan to visit my 84-year-old grandmother in Minnesota. I’d been itching to see her for the last 12 months — she’s in a senior living home, and it’s been hard to hear her sound lonelier and lonelier on our daily phone calls. She has wanted to show me her balcony garden for months, and just walk together on the Wayzata Bay.
So I asked Fauci if he, too, is planning any trips, in the hopes that he might share my excitement.
No such luck.
“I don’t see that in my life,” Fauci said, adding, “when this is all over, then I’ll worry about that.”
He admitted, though, that part of the reason his life has only changed his behavior “very, very, very slightly” in the last few months is that he still doesn’t have time to relax or recreate. His sporadic indoor meetups with a few friends and family members are all he can fit in.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really have time to do anything else,” he said.
So in part, Fauci’s cautious approach is a product of a very lopsided work-life balance.
“I’m a very unusual person,” he said.
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