Every Friday, tune into 91.5FM at 11 a.m. when Dr. Mia Taormina, an infectious disease specialist with the DuPage Medical Group, takes listener questions about the coronavirus and how to stay safe and offers her expert opinion about issues related to the ongoing public health crisis. Press “Listen” to play the radio segment or read below; the conversation with Reset host Justin Kaufmann has been edited for clarity and length.
This week, the United States surpassed 250,000 deaths from COVID-19. Experts warn the nation’s death toll could double in the coming months, as cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise across the country. To curb the spread of the virus in Illinois, Gov. JB Pritzker rolled back the entire state to Tier 3 mitigations Friday. While the plan is not a stay-at-home order, Gov. Pritzker is urging residents to stay at home and to limit social gatherings.
Reset: It seems like every week we’re getting a new set of restrictions. Do they work? I mean, does it help curb the spread that we are just seeing surge at an alarming rate?
Dr. Taormina: They do work if we adhere to them. And I agree with the governor’s statement that we really need to reconsider all non-essential activities at this point to try and just limit our movement. Even the CDC has pretty strongly recommended to cancel all holiday travel at this time. Going from state to state can really be problematic. And, also all the nonessential things, if you need to run to the store to get some groceries, that might be one thing. But going to multiple stores and just leisurely shopping at this point in time is probably not going to be the best. We need to sort of hunker down and, you know, roll with the punches this surge has handed us.
Reset: As we get closer to what seems to be the inevitable, which is a stay-at-home order, what stops us from doing that to see some reduction in the numbers of hospitalizations?
Dr. Taormina: You know, it’s going to come down to the hospital capacities, and if our hospitals are able to sustain the community needs for the patients that require hospitalization. The entire purpose of the first stay-at-home order was to flatten the curve, so to speak. And it’s not about stopping anything. This virus is running its inevitable course. The problem is, is if we allow too much movement between people that don’t have shelter-in-place orders, we run that unfortunate possibility of overwhelming our hospital systems. And already hospitals are working on those contingency plans.
Question from Rochelle in West Ridge: I have a niece who has young children — ages seven, five and two — and everyone in the family had coronavirus in September. They recovered. Is there a way I can be around the family safely?
Dr. Taormina: I get asked this question a lot. Certainly it is marginally safer to be around someone who is COVID-recovered within the last 90 days, as they should have antibodies and they should not be able to become reinfected and have a meaningful infection that could lead towards a significant spread. That being said, there exists the possibility that someone who is COVID-recovered can still hold onto active virus that they get really exposed to. It may not infect themselves, but it could in theory infect someone else … and even if someone is completely COVID-recovered and may be at less risk, meeting up with family members still requires the social distancing, mask-wearing and being responsible with the numbers of people you’re interacting with at this time.
Question from Steve in Oak Park: My son has a mud room where we can sit with the table, with the windows all open and the dining room door is right there with everybody else. How much would that reduce the risk or should we just forget about going [for Thanksgiving] at all?
Dr. Taormina: So my official word on Thanksgiving is, if you can make alternative plans, please do so. If you are having Thanksgiving just with your family who lives in your house, that is going to be the safest. Otherwise, no more than six to 10 people from no more than two households. And to the extent that there is going to be indoor eating, you should be masked at all times — essentially when you’re not eating, especially when social distancing can’t be maintained. And as opposed to eating around a table, I would recommend spreading that eating through several rooms to keep it social distanced and eating in different places around the house. If there is a space — a mudroom, a screened-in porch, outdoors, if the weather is nice enough — certainly that would be preferred to indoors. But none of these things are any guarantee. Certainly the safest bet is staying home with your own household.
Question from Ruth in Rogers Park: My question regards larger public gatherings with masks on. So I’m thinking of things like Zoo Lights or the light celebration at the Chicago Botanic Garden. There are times people are wearing masks, but [these events] are pretty popular. So what’s your word on that?
Dr. Taormina: I think it’s sort of to be continued at this point. A lot of these activities happen between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and depending on where we are with mitigations, they may be canceled. If there are allowed outside activities like Zoo Lights and things like that, likely there will be reservations needed. If not, it’s a matter of you making sure you’re going in a small group — not traveling over there and intending to stay as a group of 10, 12 family members and friends. It should just be your household and keeping that social distance from everyone else. And if there is an activity that appears crowded, keep it moving.
Question from Samantha in Brookfield: I’ll be 29 weeks pregnant tomorrow. And I was wondering, in relation to the vaccines that are coming out, if we know if those are safe or not safe for expectant mothers or for newborns?
Dr. Taormina: None of the vaccines coming out are going to be approved in under age 18 just yet. We have trials ongoing, enrolling ages 12 and up currently. But it’ll be some time before we actually have approval in that population. We may have some exceptions to the rule. Time will tell on that one, but it will be some time. So it is going to be the kind of obligation of us as healthy adults to become vaccinated in order to try and drive that needle toward herd immunity. There are no studies in pregnancy at this point.
Question from Kris in Palos Heights: If you have people sitting in a room in chairs, six feet apart, and there are windows that we are able to open up three sides of the room, do those windows need to be open 18 inches? IS a three-inch window opening in several of the windows adequate ventilation?
Dr. Taormina: So when you open windows on multiple sides of the room, it’s going to enhance that concept of circulation and laminar flow in order to get the air moving through a space. I don’t know that there’s any data as to how many inches the window should be opened. However, intuitively, the more air circulation, the better. Obviously, we live in the Midwest and the weather is not always favorable for that. But to the extent that the weather is favorable, having open flow of air in a space is ideal. When we talk about a group of people gathering, again, I like to reinforce that eating around a table involves people generally facing each other, unmasked, talking and eating. And that is something that I would not recommend at this time.
Question from Travis in Humboldt Park: When I go to the store, especially when I go to the grocery store, almost everybody has a mask on. I’m a little upset that a lot of people pull it down so that their nose is exposed … how worried should I be around somebody that’s walking in the store with their nose exposed?
Dr. Taormina: The mask needs to be worn above the nose, so by middle of the nose and below the chin, and generally form-fitting fairly well on the sides of the face. So we need to have proper mask-wearing. If someone has their nose exposed, that is not going to be effective mask-wearing. And the droplet risk, approach is that of someone who’s unmasked.
GUEST: Dr. Mia Taormina, infectious disease specialist with DuPage Medical Group
Stephanie Kim is a producer of WBEZ’s Reset. Follow her @stephaniehnkim. Email her at email@example.com