CORONAVIRUS

How do health experts deal with coronavirus risks in their everyday lives?

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci wears a face covering last Tuesd
Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci wears a face covering last Tuesday as he listens during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. (Al Drago/AP)

As Americans learn to live with the coronavirus, many are struggling with decisions about which practices are safe or risky for them.

The Washington Post asked six public health/infectious diseases specialists about their own behavior choices. Their responses are edited for length and clarity.

The experts:

• Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

• Barry Bloom, Jacobson research professor and former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

• Paul Volberding, professor of medicine and emeritus professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco.

• Elizabeth Connick, chief of the infectious diseases division and professor of medicine and immunobiology at the University of Arizona.

• Linda Bell, South Carolina’s state epidemiologist.

• David Satcher, former U.S. surgeon general, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and most recently founder of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Q: When and where do you wear a mask?

Fauci: It dominates everything I do. The only time I don’t wear one is when I am alone, when I am home with my wife, or when I am speaking in public — provided there is 6 feet between me and the people to whom I am speaking, as was the case when I answered questions at the recent Congressional hearings.

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Connick: I walk in the morning and never wear a mask walking around in my neighborhood. Even if you see somebody, you can keep your distance. But I do wear it otherwise. I don’t wear one inside my own office, but I do wear one in the general office area.

Volberding: I wear a mask most of the time, although not inside the house or sitting outside on my second-floor deck. I think people are crazy not to be wearing masks. The evidence that they are effective is pretty strong. I’ve noticed in recent weeks that the number of people wearing them seems to be decreasing, which concerns me. There is no shame in wearing a mask.

Bell: I wear one in public whenever possible, in stores, office settings, if I encounter groups of people that I can’t distance myself from and during press conferences when I’m not speaking.

Bloom: Every time I leave the house, inside and outside, and certainly when I shop.

Satcher: All the time. Even when I’m in the office, I keep it on, since people are always coming in and out. The only time I don’t is when I am home.

Q: Do you shop in grocery stores, or order online? Do you wash the items off or disinfect the outside of packages once you get home?

Fauci: I do physically go to the grocery store, but I wear a mask and keep my distance. I usually go at odd times. I spend half the day alone in my office, and I’m part-time at the White House. In the late afternoon or evening, when I’m finished with the White House, I go shopping for groceries, or to drugstores. I don’t disinfect the bags. In general, I will take the materials out of the bags, then wash my hands with soap and water, and then use Purell, and let everything sit for a day.

Connick: I wear a mask when I shop, and stay away from people while in the store. I try to minimize my trips. As infections become more widespread, I think I will be more conscientious about making only one visit a week. I don’t wash the packages. I did that for about a week, then decided there would be more cases if the virus was transmitted that way. I don’t think there is a lot of virus hanging around on those packages. But I do wash my hands.

Volberding: We have wonderful stores in our neighborhood that really enforce everything. They don’t let you get close to anyone else and everyone wears a mask. I don’t disinfect or wash anything. I don’t think the evidence for surface contamination is real. I don’t wear gloves in the store, but I wash my hands before I go and when I come back.

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Bell: I shop in grocery stores and order online. I don’t disinfect packages that I bring into my home.

Bloom: I shop at grocery stores, and also have them shipped. I don’t wash them, but usually let them sit for a day before I use them. The bug dies pretty quickly.

Satcher: I shop in grocery stores and I wear a mask. I do the hand-washing thing. I’m compulsive about that. I don’t wash or disinfect the packages, but I do wash my hands after touching them.

Q: Would you dine inside a restaurant? Outside? Do you get takeout?

Fauci: We don’t do anything inside. I don’t eat in restaurants. We do get takeout.

Connick: No, no restaurants. I avoid any closed space with a lot of people, particularly when it’s people whose risk I don’t know. I think the biggest risk is being in a closed space and breathing the same air that other people are breathing, and also not wearing masks. I wouldn’t go even if they were wearing masks. I might consider dining outside, although I would rather not. I think being outside is much safer. Takeout, yes. I would die if I didn’t do takeout.

Volberding: I wouldn’t feel comfortable yet with indoor seating, but I’d feel comfortable outside, with distances between the tables. We haven’t gone yet. We’ve gotten takeout a couple of times. We are cooking a ton, and love it.

Bell: I would not dine in a restaurant, but I would dine outside if the restaurant had a safe set up. I do get takeout.

Bloom: I would not dine inside now. I would dine outside. I’m a big believer in outside, that it’s safer outside.

Satcher: I have not dined inside a restaurant in a long time, and I used to do it a lot. I have not dined outside, but I would if I could be 6 feet away from other people. I do sometimes get takeout.

Q: Do you take any precautions with your mail or packages?

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Fauci: I used to, but now I just bring the mail in, wash my hands, then let it lie around for a day or two before I open it.

Connick: I’m just not that interested in my mail. It’s in a locked box across the street from my driveway, and I only pick it up once a week. If there is any virus on those letters, it gets cooked off. I don’t think a virus is living on my mail, and I’m really not worried about it. I don’t worry about packages. I open them.

Volberding: I don’t take any precautions with my mail. As for packages, there is no contact with the delivery person. I don’t leave them outside — they’d be stolen if I did.

Bell: No.

Bloom: I let them sit for a day. That’s probably irrational, but I do it that way.

Satcher: I’m so compulsive about mail that I’m reading it before I get it into my house. But I do wash my hands afterward.

Q: Are you getting your hair cut?

Fauci: I usually get it cut every five weeks, but I didn’t go for a long while. By the 11th week, it was looking really bad. So I asked the woman who cuts my hair if I could come in really early in the morning, at 7 a.m., and we arranged to do that. No one else was there. She wore a mask and I wore a mask.

Connick: I do not go to the hair salon. I pay my hairdresser to come to my house. The first time he did it, he said: “It’s on me, thanks for being a health care worker.” The second time, I insisted. He did it outside the first time, the second time, inside. He comes once a month. No mask for my hairdresser or me in the past. However, now that salons are open, I will have to ask him how much time he has spent at the salon. If he is spending a lot of time, I may ask him to mask. We will definitely do hair outside next time. The pandemic is unfortunately ramping up in Arizona, and everyone’s risk is greater now than it was two months ago when he first cut my hair.

Volberding: [laughs] I am quite bald. I have a little hair on the sides and I buzz that off myself.

Bell: I have not, but I would go if the business only allowed one client at a time in the general area, there was no waiting with other clients and the use of masks by all employees was required.

Bloom: Nope, I haven’t in three months, but that’s because the barbers were closed down. Now you have to make an appointment, and I haven’t had the time. Everybody wears a mask, so it would be fine.

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Satcher: I haven’t been to the barber since this started. I cut my own hair now, just like I did when I was in college.

Q: Are you willing to fly? What about bus, train, subway?

Fauci: I’m 79 years old. I am not getting on a plane. I have been on flights where I’ve been seated near people who were sneezing and coughing, and then three days later, I’ve got it. So, no chance. No Metro, no public transportation. I’m in a high risk group, and I don’t want to play around.

Connick: I would only fly if I had to, for an emergency. I would not fly now for pleasure or work. I have a family reunion that happens every year, and I’m not going. But if I had to fly, I would wear an N95 mask.

Volberding: I haven’t flown, and I’m not eager to. I don’t like the idea of being in an enclosed space, especially when the airplanes are full. I’ve only ridden BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) once because we were in the East Bay to see our new granddaughter, and a Black Lives Matter protest took over the Bay Bridge. There was no way to get back except by BART. Normally, I wouldn’t have done it, but it wasn’t very crowded.

Bell: No. With the current disease activity in the country, I don’t know when I’ll fly again while airlines don’t require physical distancing and masks required for all. No [buses or trains], but public transport isn’t widely used in my community.

Bloom: No, none of them, not until the numbers of cases are down to much lower levels than they are at the moment.

Satcher: I am willing, but I haven’t flown recently. If someone invites me to speak, and I can speak by Zoom, I do it. If someone said they really needed me somewhere, I would go, but I would wear a mask all the way. I have not been on the subway since this started, but Atlanta isn’t as big on subways as New York or other places. I just usually drive my car.

Q: What would you tell your kids or grandkids who wanted to join a protest march or go to a political rally?

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Fauci: My daughters feel very strongly about social injustice, but would not likely want to do that. They are very careful with their health. They stay away from crowds.

Connick: I’d be so proud of him. I would tell him to wear a mask. He’s young and doesn’t have any health conditions. Nothing is risk-free. If that’s what he wanted to do, I’d ask him to wear a mask.

Volberding: We are a pretty political family, and believe in these protests. But I haven’t been to a rally. I’m old enough that it’s probably more serious for me. They are young enough that it’s probably less serious for them. But I would tell them to stay to the side and wear masks all the time, and that being in the mosh pit of a crowd is a pretty bad idea.

Bell: I would advise them that the risk for exposure is high, and that they should wear a mask at all times, and make every attempt to distance themselves from people without masks.

Bloom: The answer would be yes, but wear a mask and try to stay [6 to 8] feet away from everybody. I wouldn’t do it because I am at high risk.

Satcher: I was quite active in the civil rights movement when I was a student at Morehouse. I went to jail at least five times. What bothers me about today’s protests is that they aren’t as organized as we were. You don’t know who you are marching with. You don’t want to find out when you get there that someone is going to throw a rock or start a fire.

Q: Are you making routine trips to the doctor or dentist?

Fauci: No, not yet, although I might check in within the next few weeks with my physician to get some soothing meds for my throat since I have a hoarse voice from so many briefings and interviews. He will probably take a look and say: “Just stop talking so much.”

Connick: Fortunately, I had my doctor checkup just before the shutdown, but I probably would not. As for the dentist, I probably wouldn’t go unless I had an emergency. I wouldn’t go for a routine cleaning.

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Volberding: Nope. I had one doctor’s appointment done by video. I haven’t been to the dentist, although the problem with dentists is not my health, but theirs. I feel sorry for them.

Bell: No.

Bloom: No. I’m still nervous about infection control. If I had a major dental or medical emergency, I would go. The medical people take good precautions, but I am concerned with other patients going in and out.

Satcher: I haven’t seen a dentist since this started, but probably will go in soon. I’ve seen a physician once or twice for routine appointments, and I was comfortable with the way they handled the visits.

Q: If you had young kids, would you send them back to school in the fall?

Fauci: It really depends on where you live.

Connick: I think that’s a very difficult question. I’m very glad I don’t have to make that decision. If they got sick, they may be fine but they could give it to me. As a doctor, I feel obligated to not get sick. It would be very difficult [to] have children who were in the school system.

Volberding: Oh boy, that’s a hard question. It’s such a challenge. The data I’ve heard about that suggest the really young kids are not much of an infection reservoir, so I think it might be OK for preschool, day care and elementary school. The question gets to be harder in high school and college. I think the schools probably will have shifts, morning and afternoon, and limited hours. They might consider teaching in cohorts — small groups of students, so if one get infected, they can quarantine that one group to keep it from spreading. I don’t think you can replace direct interaction with Zoom.

Bell: Yes.

Bloom: Yes. I believe that the process of socialization is really important, and that long-term deprivation of that is probably going to do more harm than the occasional child becoming infected. We also need to liberate parents and get them back to work, but as carefully as we can. I think kids need schooling and socialization.

Satcher: It would depend on what arrangements the school made to protect their health.

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Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.