Observing just five simple public health measures — wearing face masks in public, keeping a physical distance of at least 6 feet, avoiding crowds, engaging in activities outdoors rather than indoors, and washing hands frequently — could significantly blunt the spikes in COVID-19 cases that continue to pop up throughout the U.S.
That’s according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a current member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, who spoke at a live virtual Berkeley Forum event on Thursday (Oct. 8).
The event drew nearly 3,500 live viewers to the Forum’s Facebook and YouTube livestreams — enough to fill UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, The Playhouse and Wheeler Hall combined — said Kaho Otake, a third-year UC Berkeley student and the Forum’s Vice President of Communications. Fauci was invited by the Forum’s Events Manager Christie Maly, a second-year student at UC Berkeley.
In the wide-ranging conversation, Fauci discussed his stance on many of the issues that have come to define the COVID-19 pandemic, including the challenge of communicating science-based public health advice in the era of disinformation, the rapid development and deployment of a safe and effective vaccine and the devasting impact of the virus on Black, Latinx and Native American communities in the U.S.
Fauci also came out in support of some form of universal health care in the U.S., especially in the face of an outbreak like COVID-19.
“The fact is that we’ve got to make sure that we have a health care system where no one can go without necessary health care and quality health care,” Fauci said. “I think there’s this concern that if you make it universal, the quality will go down. It doesn’t necessarily have to go down at all. But when people fall between the cracks of health care, then you get an even more difficult situation than the outbreak itself poses.”
In addition to inequities in health care access, Fauci attributed the disproportionate impact of the virus on Black and Brown communities in the U.S. to two major factors. First, these communities are more likely to work jobs that force them to interact face to face with others, making them more likely to contract the virus, he said. Second, the burden of systemic racism in this country has contributed to chronic health problems for many in these communities, putting them at higher risk of death or other severe outcomes when they do become infected.
“Covid-19 is [shining] a very bright light on the social determinants of health that have been there all along, that we don’t pay a lot of attention to, and that are, in essence, killing minorities,” Fauci said. “I would hope that the terrible experience that we’re going through now galvanizes and energizes us to make a decades long commitment to doing things about these social determinants of health, which are reversible, but they’re not reversible overnight or in one or two years. They’re reversible over a long period of time. And that takes a societal commitment.”
When a safe and effective vaccine becomes available, its distribution should be managed by the U.S. government so that those who are most vulnerable to the virus have early access, he said. However, even if a vaccine were to become available now, he said, he wouldn’t expect life to look “normal” again until at least the second half of 2021.
“It’s not going to be like turning a light switch on and off at all,” Fauci said. “I think, ultimately, we will get back to normality as we knew it before this, but … it’s going to be a gradual process in which the restrictions on things — restaurant numbers, theater attendance, spectators at sports — all of that will come back gradually, but it will come back.”