National News

When can we return to normal?

Posted December 19, 2020 4:45 p.m. EST
Updated December 19, 2020 6:34 p.m. EST

Over the weekend, we've learned of 10 new coronavirus deaths in Wake County. Those deaths make up 14% of the total 71 deaths in Wake County. The county’s first death happened nearly three months ago.

The United States moved one step closer to getting back to normal this past week with the first COVID vaccinations of health care workers around the country. While the majority of Americans won’t get their shots until spring, the vaccine rollout is a hopeful sign of better days ahead. We asked Dr. Anthony Fauci as well as several public health researchers and health and science writers for The New York Times for their predictions about the months ahead. Here’s what they had to say.

Q: What advice do you have for families eager to celebrate the holidays with their loved ones?

A: “Do it by Zoom. Don’t let Junior come home and kill Grandma. Think of this like World War II; our soldiers didn’t get to fly home to eat turkey. My father was at Normandy. My mother was with the Red Cross in occupied Austria. They missed the holidays. Life went on. There were happier years later.” — Donald G. McNeil Jr., health and science reporter

Q: Will we shake hands again?

A: “I’m not. I don’t know about you. I said that many, many months ago, and the newspapers went wild with it. I’m sure people will get back to shaking hands. I think people will probably become more aware of personal hygiene and protecting yourself. That doesn’t mean nobody will shake hands again, nor does it mean everybody will go back to the way we did it again. Probably somewhere in between. Some people will be reluctant to shake hands. Some people will be washing hands a whole lot more than they ever did, even when COVID-19 is no longer around.” — Dr. Anthony Fauci

Q: When would you personally feel comfortable returning to the office?

A: “When I’m vaccinated and everyone around me is.” — McNeil

Q: Is my employer going to require me to be vaccinated?

A: “Employers do have the right to compel their workers to be vaccinated once a vaccine is formally approved. Many hospital systems, for example, require annual flu shots. But employees can seek exemptions based on medical reasons or religious beliefs. In such cases, employers are supposed to provide a ‘reasonable accommodation’; with a coronavirus vaccine, a worker might be allowed to wear a mask in the office instead or to work from home.” — Abby Goodnough, national health care correspondent

Q: Will we ever go to a big, crowded, indoor party without a mask again?

A: “If the level of infection in the community seems substantial, you’re not going to have the parties with friends in congregant settings. If the level of infection is so low that risk is minuscule, you’re going to see back to the normal congregating together, having parties, doing that. If we want to get back to normal, it gets back to my message: When the vaccine becomes available, get vaccinated.” — Fauci

Q: Do we have to wait for 75% of the population to be vaccinated before we can travel again?

A: “I think traveling is going to start easing up as you get much less than that. I think it’s going to be gradual. There is no black and white, light switch on, light switch off.” — Fauci

Q: How long will we be wearing masks?

A: “If you get herd immunity where there are no infections around, you wouldn’t have to wear a mask all the time. You might want to wear it if you were in a crowded situation, but you wouldn’t have to have the stringency you have now. Ultimately, I think you’re going to have to transition from wearing it all the time, to wearing it under certain circumstances, to perhaps not having to wear it at all.” — Fauci

Q: How will we know it’s safe to do normal things?

A: “First of all, it’s going to be expressed by the number of new cases that you see — the test positivity number. You’ve got to go as low as you can get. The best number is zero. It’s never going to be zero, but anywhere close to that is great.” — Fauci

Q: When can we go to the movies or the theater?

A: “It depends on the uptake of the vaccine and the level of infection in the community. If you go to April, May, June, and you really put on a full-court press and try to vaccinate everybody within a period of a few months, as you go from second to third quarter of the year, then you could likely go to movies, go to theaters, do what you want. However, it’s unlikely, given what we’re hearing about people’s desire to get vaccinated, that we’re going to have that degree of uptake. If it turns out that only 50% get vaccinated, then it’s going to take much, much longer to get back to the kind of normality that we’d like to see.” — Fauci

Q: When will you eat in a restaurant?

A: “If more than half the population is vaccinated, I would feel a little less stressed and anxious when heading out to do errands I normally do. I might actually feel comfortable to eat in a restaurant or see friends again one day if this is possible.”— Vijaya L. Seegulam, research project manager, Boston University

Q: When will you feel comfortable in a crowd?

A: “Once my family and I are vaccinated, I would change behaviors, except I can’t imagine being in a crowd or attending any crowded events until at least 80% of the population is vaccinated.”— Julie Bettinger, associate professor, University of British Columbia

Q: When will restrictions start to ease up?

A: “I think widespread availability of vaccines will result in the further relaxation of most precautions by mid- to late summer 2021.” — Michael Webster-Clark, postdoctoral researcher, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Q: What will the new normal look like?

A: “The new normal will be continued masking for the next 12 to 18 months and possibly the next few years. This is a paradigm shift.” — Roberta Bruhn, epidemiology core co-director, Vitalant Research Institute

Q: What will never return to normal?

A: “My relationships with people who have taken this pandemic lightly and ignored public health messages and recommendations.” — Victoria Holt, professor emeritus, University of Washington

Q: What did you learn from pandemic life?

A: “Staying home with my children has taught me that life with fewer errands to run and activities to partake in is kind of nice. I think in the future we will cut down on our family obligations.” — Jennifer Nuzzo, associate professor, Johns Hopkins

Q: What pandemic habit will you keep?

A: “I’m going to keep my mask and wear it in crowds and on subways, particularly during cold and flu season. I used to get sick all the time, but I haven’t had a cold or sore throat in months. I really like not getting sick!” — Tara Parker-Pope, Well columnist

Q: What’s one thing you’ll never take for granted again?

A: “I won’t take traveling to my extended family for granted.” — Alicia Allen, assistant professor, University of Arizona

Q: What has forever changed in your daily life?

A: “I will never again have to explain what an epidemiologist is.” — Janet Rich-Edwards, associate professor, Harvard

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