As the U.S. continues to ramp up vaccinations, Dr. Anthony Fauci discussed what the future holds for people who are vaccinated, whether COVID-19 worries will ever completely fade, and how divisiveness hurt efforts to fight the pandemic, at a virtual Chicago event Thursday.
Fauci spoke as he accepted an award from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy that’s given annually to an exceptional leader who has championed analytically rigorous, evidence-based approaches to policy.
Here are five takeaways from the remarks by Fauci, who is the government’s top infectious disease expert, heading the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases:
1. Vaccinated people should still be cautious
“The instinct is to say, ‘We have a really good vaccine, I’m vaccinated, I have a 95% effective vaccine, why can’t I do whatever I want to do?’,” Fauci said. “Ultimately, you may be able to do that but not right now because there are things we don’t know.”
Fauci said it’s still unknown whether the vaccine prevents a vaccinated person from spreading the illness “so we say you’ve got to wear a mask.”
Fauci also said he thinks that if individuals get COVID-19 after being vaccinated, the level of virus in their system will likely be substantially lower than it would be in a person who hasn’t been vaccinated. “There’s a study from Israel that strongly suggests that. But we’re doing a study now to try and nail that down, and if in fact we find that out, then you’re going to see a pulling back on some of the restrictions, but we’re not there yet.”
2. Vaccines may not completely end COVID-19 worries
Harris School Dean Katherine Baicker asked Fauci whether mass vaccination will allow the world to ever truly get over COVID-19, or whether variants, booster shots, and vaccine tweaks will always be part of life.
“I don’t know the answer to that question. I just don’t, and the reason I don’t is there are too many variables in there that I don’t have control over, nor do my public health colleagues have control over,” Fauci said. “How many people are going to get vaccinated? How many variants are you going to have? And then you have the thing that we really don’t have, individually, a lot of control over, and that is a global pandemic requires a global response.”
3. Divisiveness made it more difficult to fight COVID-19
One of the challenges the pandemic response faced was that it occurred during one of the most divisive periods in recent U.S. history, Fauci said. “You have public health measures that are assuming almost a political stance, whether or not you should wear a mask, whether or not you should avoid congregate settings. That makes it extremely difficult to address a pandemic of this proportion.”
4. The U.S. could have used a more uniform response to COVID-19
“You’ve got to do some things that are really uniform. That was one of the things that actually was the weakness in our response. “ … We wanted to all pull together, and yet some states often related to their ideology of whether it was a red state or a blue state, which inherently is wrong because you’re dealing with a single common enemy,” he said.
5. COVID-19 highlighted health inequities facing brown and Black communities
Fauci said the pandemic has shown the “extraordinary health disparities we have in this country for our minority populations, for our brown and Black populations.”
“You see discrepancies that are stunning, that you have brown and Black people by the nature of the jobs they have, that are essential workers keeping the country going, they’re interfacing with people … they’re out there and they have a higher incidence of infection,” Fauci said. “Then what they have is a much higher incidence and prevalence of the comorbitities that put them into that category, at whatever age they are, of having a serious outcome of hospitalization and deaths.”
“We can’t let this be forgotten when we get out of COVID-19. We’ve got to remember the health disparities that keep coming back and biting the populations that are the most vulnerable.”
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