Back-to-school season has left parents and students across the country rattled about how to remain safe amid COVID-19 concerns. In an Instagram Live interview with Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, MD on Sept. 9, mother of three Jennifer Garner voiced these concerns and asked the questions that have been weighing heavy on the minds of families for months. Can children play together outside? When should we get our flu shots? And when can we look forward to the release of a reliable vaccine?
"There are about five fundamental public health principles that, really, no matter where you are, you need to practice them, because I think if we did that uniformly throughout the country, we would not be in the situation we're in right now," said Dr. Fauci, who has been the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. "We have a very high baseline of infections. You look at the numbers and we're averaging between 35 [thousand] and 45 thousand infections a day."
Dr. Fauci's five essential public health tips include:
- Wear a mask in public. Face shields are not as effective.
- Practice social distancing and remain at least six feet apart from others who are not members of your household.
- Avoid crowds and large gatherings.
- If you are meeting up with friends, organize the event in an outdoor area, rather than indoors, to increase ventilation and lower the risk of transmission.
- Wash your hands as often as possible.
"That seems rather simplistic, but if you look at the data of what happens when states, cities, and counties do that, it's very clear that they can turn around the surging of infections that we're seeing in several states," said Dr. Fauci.
So Is It Safe For Kids to Return to School?
When it comes down to whether it's safe for children to return to school or spend time together outside of the home, Dr. Fauci insists that we must "think in terms of the fundamental matrix of yellow vs. green vs. red." Across the country, states and cities have been divided into three zones: Green (reasonably safe), Yellow (moderate degree of infection), and Red (high levels of infection). As a result, Dr. Fauci recommends that schools and communities take precautions based off of their city's designated zone attributes.
"I always say the best way to get your children back to school is as a community."
"That may mean a hybrid of virtual [learning] together with in-person, physical spacing of the desks, alternating morning vs. afternoon, one day vs. the other," he said. "I think you have to think very seriously of whether or not it's prudent to bring the children back to school. I always say the best way to get your children back to school is as a community. Do everything you can, if you're in a red zone, to convert your zone into a yellow zone, and then convert it into a green zone." Additionally, Dr. Fauci says that schools should have a plan of action in place to care for students who do become infected.
Contrary to the belief of some, children of all ages are vulnerable to COVID-19 and can spread coronavirus. They are much less likely to be hospitalized or become seriously ill, but this does not dismiss the possibility of becoming infected. For college students, testing is crucial, and Dr. Fauci urges colleges to test everyone individually and confirm that they are negative for coronavirus before welcoming them onto campus. Dr. Fauci also notes that people from ages 18-34 are being hospitalized after being infected more often than before, making it important for these students to be tested as often as a few times a week.
For colleges and universities that have reopened, it is in the best interest of the students, their families, and the staff that there is a designated area — a dorm floor or dorm building — for students who do become infected to recuperate, rather than sending them back home where it is likely they will infect their family or community. As for students, having fun with friends is okay, but take precautions to avoid exacerbating the problem. "You have a societal responsibility," Dr. Fauci said. "You don't want to be part of the problem. You want to be part of the solution."
How Can We Get on With Our Normal Lives and Remain Safe?
In terms of how to move forward while remaining safe, Dr. Fauci says that avoiding others at all costs isn't necessarily the solution, especially when you have children in the home. Opening windows at home and taking walks outdoors as a family is great for your mental health, while staying inside 24/7 and constantly being on edge can have negative effects on children's well-being.
"We need to be practical and reasonable with the wearing of masks."
So what about masks? Should we be wearing them all the time? At present, 40 to 45 percent of those who are infected with coronavirus do not show any symptoms, but about 50 percent of all transmissions occur from an asymptomatic person to an uninfected person, which is why universal mask wearing is so important. But that doesn't mean we can't breathe in a fresh gulp of air once in a while. "We need to be practical and reasonable with the wearing of masks," Dr. Fauci told Jennifer. He then explained that it's okay to pull your mask down when you're in a wide open space without other people nearby, but as soon as others begin to approach, it's best to wear your mask over your mouth and nose.
If your kids want to spend time or play with friends, Dr. Fauci says it's best to avoid contact sports like football and stick to games where contact is minimal to none — like tennis or golf — to keep children separated and avoid airborne transmission. "We used to think that because the virus was detectable on inanimate objects — which we call fomites — that there may be a considerable degree of transmissibility," he explained when Jennifer asked about the possibility of touching the same tennis ball during a game. "We're finding out that that's not the case. It isn't that there's zero transmissibility with a tennis ball or a racket, but the overwhelming evidence is that it's much more person-to-person."
When Can We Expect a Vaccine?
As far as a reliable vaccine goes, Dr. Fauci told Jennifer that there are seven candidate vaccines being tested in US, three of which are in phase three of clinical trials and are being tested on tens of thousands of people. The results of this testing will likely be available sometime in November or December of 2020. The vaccines must reach various testing checkpoints before being widely distributed to ensure that they are safe for everyone. Once the vaccines are available, Dr. Fauci believes frontline and healthcare workers will be made a priority, then people with underlying medical conditions, then essential members of society, and, finally, the general population. If the tests on the vaccines currently in phase three prove successful, the general population can expect access by mid to late 2021.
So how else can we stay safe? Those who are vitamin deficient should consider taking Vitamin D and Vitamin C — not herbs — and everyone over the age of six months should get a flu shot around October. In the meantime, Dr. Fauci recommends following the five public health tips mentioned above and getting tested with a PCR RNA test — which is more accurate than an anagen screener test — if you believe you've been in a situation where you might have been infected. Watch Jennifer's full interview with Dr. Fauci here.