The coronavirus pandemic is not over, but stay-at-home orders are starting to loosen up across the country. In Illinois, people can now visit hair salons, museums, restaurants and even bars, with restrictions.
Meanwhile, other states including Florida, Texas and Arizona are seeing more cases of COVID-19 than ever before. Which means all of this is really confusing.
Dr. Emily Landon, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago, has spent a lot of time thinking about global pandemics, and COVID-19 in particular. She talked with Nerdette host Greta Johnsen about navigating the world, making personal risk assessments and also hugs. Below are highlights from the conversation.
Are we getting back to “normal” too soon?
Dr. Emily Landon: We can’t just stay the line until there’s a vaccine. That takes a really long time and it’s not human to do that. It’s much more like — our job in all of evolution is to adapt to situations that are given to us, right? We climb mountains, we build skyscrapers, we do all kinds of things and we figure out how to live with virus. That means of course that some people are going to get sick, but some people are going to get sick even if we did stay home. The idea is that we can use what we’ve learned to try and help people to coexist with the virus.
How to coexist with coronavirus
Landon: The issue that I have right now is I think there is a lot of politicization of some of the measures that are important to help us coexist peacefully with the virus. And I don’t think there’s any need for that.
When the case counts are low in your area and you have really low levels of transmission, that’s a time to be grateful and to be able to more safely spend time with other people and maybe eat inside in a restaurant. But when the case counts are higher, then maybe then some of those things aren’t available to us. And the difference between those two situations is really about us. It’s not about the virus. It’s about how well we do at eliminating unnecessary close contact with people, sort of saving up our risk and spending it on getting a hug from your best friend, instead of talking with someone at the grocery store for an hour, or whatever.
So you kind of have to pick and choose what really is most valuable to you and do those things, but you also have to be patient and leave room for other people to do stuff too, because we all can’t go to the beach at the same time anymore.
Can I hug my family?
Landon: I like to say if you’re up close and unmasked with someone, then you’re kind of sharing your risk together, so you need to think about how you’re going to do that. And to be honest with you, to a certain degree a quick hug with a friend where you’re both wearing masks, is pretty safe. Because if you’re wearing your masks, you’re not breathing in each other’s faces. I mean it kind of depends what kind of hug you’re doing.
Greta Johnsen: Gradients of hugs.
Landon: But I think there’s room for that. I think if you have a grandmother or a family member or a grandfather who’s higher risk, you can sort of save up. You can say, “I’m going to be really careful, and then I’m going to go spend some time with my family, because that’s really important to me.”
What about the other things I want to do?
Landon: You’ve been making personal risk assessments your entire life. This is just a completely new risk to incorporate, and there’s not enough information to really understand exactly how much risk there is for some of these activities. Like reopening these things, we have pretty good guesses and we have great mathematical models, but we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. So it’s all a bit of an experiment, and so you have to approach it kind of in that same way for yourself. You’re going to gain experience with it. And it’s appropriate to approach it cautiously and carefully and to think about what it means.
But I think the fact that there aren’t too many rules, that’s the freedom that people are looking for. It’s not about not having to wear a mask. It’s about being able to decide what kind of risk you’re going to take on.
How the results of your actions will likely go unseen
Landon: We have to be grateful for the fact that we made this sacrifice. And the only thing that you get out of making that sacrifice is that somebody, somewhere in your life, that you love and appreciate, is still here because we all made that sacrifice. That’s what we did. But it’s hard, because you can’t point to that person and say this is exactly what happened.
The conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.