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Rethink big Thanksgivings and wear a mask, Dr. Fauci tells Johns Hopkins audience

Rethink big family gatherings for Thanksgiving, continue wearing your mask and keep your distance as cold weather likely ushers in more coronavirus cases. But don’t give up hope that more normal life will ever return.

That’s the message delivered Friday by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top pandemic scientist, during a virtual “fireside chat” with the staff and students at Johns Hopkins University as part of a new series of discussions with Washington leaders.

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Fauci, director of the National Academy of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top adviser to the Trump administration on the coronavirus, didn’t offer much new during the health policy forum. But as Ellen MacKenzie, dean of the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said during the discussion, the pandemic has thrust Fauci, who has deep experience in dangerous outbreaks, into a new role as the nation’s and world’s “trusted source.”

For his part, Fauci said his driving force is “the realization not only of the enormity of the problem, but the fact that we can do something about it. It is not an unsolvable series of problems.”

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He acknowledged the nation has been divided on its response to the virus and the public’s belief in what public officials tell them.

Fauci himself appears to have run afoul at times of President Donald Trump, who has expressed skepticism about the seriousness of the pandemic even after he spent several days in the hospitals with the COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Fauci said he adheres to the data and science but admitted that sometimes there is new evidence that changes the story. He said he’s learned to be honest and transparent, and as MacKenzie described it, “speak truth to power," during four decades seeing the country through other infectious disease outbreaks, from HIV to SARS and Ebola.

Proper and consistent messaging during those outbreaks wasn’t always easy, and Fauci said this time is different because this is a pandemic not seen in more than a century.

The devastation in recent months has been far wider than any other outbreak in modern times. There have been almost 8 million cases and almost 218,000 deaths in the United States, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide there have been more than 39 million cases and almost 1.1 million deaths.

Even with several vaccines in the works, it will be many months before most people can expect a dose, Fauci said. Even then, a vaccine may be “60%, 70% or 90% effective,” meaning spread can continue.

And that’s assuming people agree to take the vaccine. Surveys show that large numbers of people distrust the speedy approval process and the safety of a potential vaccine. Fauci again said transparency will help alleviate such concerns.

In the meantime, with no vaccine or even highly effective therapy, the country doesn’t need to return to full lockdown, he said. That doesn’t mean there aren’t hard decisions ahead.

Fauci said people should strongly consider the potential costs to vulnerable members of the family or community of having relatives travel, stay and eat in close quarters over the Thanksgiving holiday.

It also doesn’t mean giving up on regular adherence to public health guidance. He said the virus could be well controlled and the economy further reopened if more people got on board with five specific measures: masking, distancing, avoiding large gatherings, spending time outside or indoors only in well-ventilated spaces, and hand washing.

“Whenever we talk about implementing public health measures, people think we want to shut the country down,” he said. “We want to use public health measures in a prudent way. We want to open the economy and get jobs back. Public health measures need to be the gateway not the obstacle to opening the economy.”

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