For most of 2020, the little fun Anthony Fauci was the neighbors next door.
Fauci has lived in the same neighborhood in northwestern Washington, DC for more than 40 years, and the combination of his busy schedule and concerns about pandemic safety limited his social life to a small radius.
“I haven’t had a day off for a year and three months,” Fauci told me recently.
When Fauci and his wife gathered at the neighbors, they took no chances: the households remained socially remote and out, even in the fall and winter when it got a little chilly.
“Every time we gathered, we would do it outside, with ice cold, a mask on, have dinner or a drink outside on my patio,” he said.
Then Fauci, who has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, was vaccinated. At a much-photographed moment (see above), he got his first Moderna shot on December 22. In the months that followed, others in his age group followed suit.
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 without masks, and we can have physical contact and things like that,” he said.
But for now he still doesn’t eat inside a restaurant or a movie theater.
“I don’t think – even if I got vaccinated – I would go to a crowded, covered place where people don’t wear masks,” Fauci said.
He doesn’t plan any trips either: “I haven’t seen myself doing very nice trips for a while,” he said.
Fauci’s caution, he said, stems from the “interesting crossroads” on which the US sits.
A record number of people are vaccinated per day – an average of 3 million doses are now being given per day – but the number of new infections reported is still on the rise in 18 states. In Michigan, one of the worst hot spots, average daily cases have more than quadrupled in the past month.
“It’s kind of a race between the vaccine and the possibility of another wave coming,” Fauci said. So the more Americans are patient with their return to normal life, he added, the less likely we are to see a spike in the fourth case.
Fauci doesn’t go in where people don’t wear masks
Like 64 million other Americans, Fauci regularly assesses what is safe and unsafe as a vaccinated person in a country where four out of five people have not yet been fully vaccinated. Rising numbers for US business complicate matters. In the past week, an average of more than 65,000 new cases were reported per day – a 14% increase from the country’s seven-day average in mid-March.
Considering all this, Fauci said his daily life remains essentially unchanged from what it was before he got his photos. He doesn’t see vaccination as a green light to resume the countless activities that have been taken from him and the rest of us.
Cinemas where viewers take off their masks to eat popcorn? No.
“That would still worry me,” Fauci said.
Bars and restaurants where maskless people eat and drink? They are also still off the table.
Fauci’s behavior is consistent with CDC guidelines, which say vaccinated Americans should continue to wear a mask in public at all times and avoid medium and large in-person gatherings.
As has been the case during 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 involving 650 children were linked to the bar’s reopening in February.
Keeping the lid on suitcases requires patience
Not all experts agree with Fauci and the CDC’s caution.
Dr. Wen, an emergency physician in Baltimore, previously told Insider that the CDC guidelines for vaccinated people are “overly cautious.”
“Individuals who are fully vaccinated may well decide to take the risk that other people don’t bother with,” she said. “So having a policy to make certain things come back, I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing.”
Still, Fauci said it’s important for all Americans – vaccinated and unvaccinated – to keep avoiding crowds and social distances until we are sure vaccinated people don’t spread the virus. Growing evidence suggests no, but being patient is how we’re keeping an eye on this thing, Fauci said.
Fauci has estimated that the threshold for herd immunity – the point where enough Americans are vaccinated or immune to the virus from an infection to hinder 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 get to a point where the protection of the general community through the vaccine makes it very unlikely that we’ll get another wave.”
Vaccination coverage in the US has 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 travel is okay, but Fauci won’t
The CDC announced Friday that vaccinated Americans can travel in the US by air, train, or bus without being quarantined or tested, as long as they wear masks.
I was excited, as the change meant I could finally make a plan to visit my 84-year-old grandmother in Minnesota. I’ve been itching to see her for the past 12 months – she’s in a retirement home and it was hard to hear her sound lonelier and lonely on our daily phone calls. She had wanted to show me her balcony garden for months and just walk the Wayzata Bay together.
So I asked Fauci if he also plans outings, hoping he would share my excitement.
“I don’t see that in my life,” Fauci said, adding, “when this is all over, I’ll worry about it.”
However, he admitted that part of the reason his life has changed his behavior only “very, very, very little” in recent 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 fits in.
“To be honest, I don’t really have time to do anything else,” he said.
Fauci’s cautious approach is thus partly the product of a very skewed work-life balance.
“I am a very unusual person,” he said.