Covid experts are traveling again, masking less, thankful for vaccines



Just like us, they disinfected groceries, left their mail outside for 24 hours, canceled family gatherings, stopped eating out. But today, for the medical experts at the forefront of dealing with the coronavirus that causes covid-19, everyday life has become more normal. All have been vaccinated and boosted, and many have had covid too, a combination that seems to provide more durable protection. While the pandemic isn’t gone, their risk calculations these days look different.

“We all have moments where we forget covid exists, when we want to enjoy a moment without thinking about it,” says Elizabeth Connick, professor of medicine and immunobiology and chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Arizona. “It feels more normal, but I don’t think it’s back to the way it used to be.”

The Washington Post has interviewed a group of medical experts several times over the past three years to see how the pandemic was affecting their personal lives. Here’s what they have to say today. Responses have been edited for space and clarity.

Q: Are you still masking?

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: I probably mask more frequently than most. I always wear a mask and test a few days before I see my parents — they are well and healthy but in their older years — and I always wear one when I travel. My schedule is so busy and I want to be able to do all the things on my schedule.

Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine: I don’t wear masks except at work, where it is required. I really trust the vaccines. My 88-year-old father, who has been treated with chemo for B-cell lymphoma, has had five covid shots. We had his antibodies tested, and they were sky-high, which is what really persuaded me about how well these mRNA vaccines work.

Robert T. Schooley, distinguished professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and global public health and co-director of the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics at the University of California at San Diego: I still mask when I am in locations that are incompletely ventilated, especially if community transmission rates are elevated and human density is high. I’d still wear a mask if I were going to be grocery shopping for an extended time when there is a lot of activity in the store. If I jump out of the car and get to the door of the store and realize I’d not remembered to bring a mask when I’m out for a bottle of ketchup, I doubt that I’d double back to the car to get a mask before going into the store.

Connick: I mask at work, in stores, on airplanes and public transport and in doctors’ offices.

Helene Gayle, a public health physician and president of Spelman College: For sure on an airplane and going through airports. I do it as much to prevent other respiratory diseases as I do for covid. Now that masks have been normalized, I figure I may wear a mask on airplanes for the rest of my life. I also mask if I am in a large crowd indoors where people are close together. I no longer mask when grocery shopping where my contact with other people is limited.

Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine and professor in the departments of pediatrics, molecular virology and microbiology: Yes, in airports, planes and other crowded gatherings.

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine in health policy and professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center: I always wear masks when I am out in public. I do a shopping run every Saturday morning. I go early. I have noticed in recent weeks that fewer people are wearing masks. I think the last time I was there, I was the only person wearing one. We have a member of our extended family who has been living with us while undergoing cancer therapy — so we wear them not just to protect ourselves, but to protect someone at home.

Paul Volberding, professor emeritus of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF: Recently I was called for jury duty, and everyone had to wear a mask. I still mask in grocery stores, and I try to remember on airplanes, but sometimes I forget. I’m pretty sure I got infected on an airplane. I let my guard down. I was very strict about public transit for a long time, but after getting the bivalent vaccine I relaxed and was less observant.

Q: Are you back to eating in restaurants?

Walensky: I have been eating inside restaurants, and it’s been lovely.

Volberding: Yes, although when I can, I choose to eat outside, Eating outside is an easy option here in San Francisco. But I have no qualms about eating inside.

Gayle: I try to go to ones that aren’t crowded and have more space. If possible, I prefer eating outside.

Schaffner: We have done so once with dear friends — we used to do this with them all the time before the pandemic — and it was wonderful. But my wife made sure we were careful about where we were sitting — in a booth — and we asked the server to wear a mask.

Q. How do you handle visits, outings with friends and relatives?

Walensky: My dearest friends have been around me through this entire pandemic, and we’re all doing our best to keep each other healthy. Not infrequently, I might get a text from a friend coming for coffee and she’ll send me a picture of a negative test. We don’t even have to ask.

Gandhi: I discourage anyone from going anywhere when sick. I won’t go anywhere when I am sick. But I no longer use the same tools as before, like testing before parties, or masking.

Hotez: No testing, unless symptomatic.

Schaffner: We ask everyone who comes here to test because of our family member who is receiving chemo.

Schooley: We only test when community transmission rates are high, if people have traveled from a higher transmission locale or if one of those in the “outing” is at increased risk from covid if infected.

Connick: When people come to stay at my home, particularly those under 30, I often ask them to test once, upon arrival. I have friends with health conditions who are quite worried about getting covid. When I stay with them or when they stay with me, we all test daily. I don’t test if I go out with people, or go to a small party, but my group generally is low risk.

Q: Have the vaccines changed the balance in your precautions?

Gandhi: I believe that vaccination is the key to normal life. I realize that it’s different for everyone, but that’s the way it is for me.

Connick: Yes, I’d rather delay getting covid for as long as possible, but still live a reasonable life — and vaccines have allowed me to do that. I still take small risks, like eating in restaurants, attending small parties, traveling and having people stay at my home — things I would not have done before vaccines.

Volberding: I don’t know how I would act if I weren’t vaccinated. I think when a person who is vaccinated gets covid, it tends to be very mild. Without vaccination, I would be much more concerned. Now that I am fully vaccinated and have had an infection, I am increasingly relaxed about the severity of illness.

Gayle: Yes, definitely. I still remain careful. I try not to do handshaking and I still try to wash my hands frequently, which are always good health practices. But because of the vaccine, that’s why I feel comfortable going to restaurants and having people over.

Q: Do you fly? Take the train? And do you still mask up when you do?

Gandhi: I fly. I do not mask.

Hotez: No trains in Houston, but I do fly. I wear masks on flights and in airports.

Schaffner: I haven’t traveled in 2½ years. For professional reasons, I have been able to do an incredible amount virtually.

Connick: I feel very comfortable flying or taking public transportation while wearing a mask. The great thing about masks is that they work.

Schooley: Do I fly? Yes. Take the train? No, but alas, there are few trains still running outside the Northeast Corridor. I generally mask in the airport and upon boarding. Once at altitude, I’m less assiduous about masking since airplane ventilation and air filtration is quite good.

Q: Do you still worry about getting covid. Or getting it again?

Walensky: Having had it, it’s not much fun. I worry about things I would be disappointed to miss if I got it again. An international trip. A visit with my family. My schedule is packed, and I want to maximize all that. I don’t want to be out for seven to 10 days. I have five injections behind me and some protection from having had covid before, so when I think about risk, I don’t think about severe disease to myself — I don’t want to bring it into the household or be unwell and have to cancel my activities.

Gandhi: I’ve never had covid. I know I eventually will get covid because it’s never going to be eradicated. But I don’t worry about it. It was really scary prior to vaccinations, but now we are protected against severe disease.

Schaffner: My wife and I both had covid last summer. Our family member developed a complication and was hospitalized for nine days, and he picked up this highly contagious virus, despite extraordinary precautions taken in the hospital. When he came home, he got a cough, then my wife got a cough and then I got one. The next morning, I gathered all three of us at kitchen counter and we all tested — and we all tested positive.

Hotez: Yes and yes. And I take advantage of all booster opportunities.

Volberding: I got it for the first time several weeks ago, and it was very mild.

Connick: I have not had covid and I worry about getting it — but not as much as I did before the vaccines. I think it is inevitable I will get it at some point.

Gayle: I don’t lose any sleep over it, but I still don’t want to get it. One never knows how you’re going to react to it. And the specter of long covid is still a concern.

Q: Would you take Paxlovid? Or have you taken it?

Connick: In a heartbeat. I don’t want that virus ever replicating in my body. Paxlovid brings your viral load down quicker. That virus is bad.

Volberding: I did. I hated it. It was like sucking on a rusty nail. But I gladly took it, and I’d take it if I got covid again. I’m impressed by this virus. It’s not something to play with.

Walensky: Yes. It doesn’t taste like ice cream. We do know that less virus is better than more virus, and that Paxlovid suppresses the virus. So, yes, I would take it again and encourage people to take it.

Schaffner: Yes, and would again.

Gandhi: I would make my parents take it. Those who get the most benefit are those 65 or older. I am 53 and don’t think I would benefit. If I were unvaccinated, I would take it immediately.

4 health experts on the covid travel precautions we should keep

Gayle: I think if I were very symptomatic, I would. I’ve had enough friends and colleagues who have had a rebound after taking it, so I would wait to see if I have a full-on case.

Q: In your own life, are you treating covid now like getting the flu or a bad cold?

Walensky: There is still infection circulating. While flu dies down after flu season, we are still hearing about covid infections and it is still the case that 350 people a day are passing from this infection [in the United States].

Volberding: I’ve still not yet fully decided. My infection was like a bad cold, but the questions about long covid are real.

Connick: Covid is more infectious. And we haven’t lived with covid long enough to truly understand its long-term effects.

Q: Does life feel back to normal for you? Are there things you still won’t do, such as movies, concerts, indoor dining, big parties, take a cruise?

Walensky: That’s kind of a loaded question from where I’m sitting, since my life is not normal. It’s a different kind of normal. More people are going to restaurants. More people are going to movies. More people are going to Broadway. More people are going to malls. That is a good thing. We need to recognize there is still a risk, but still start doing some of the things we know and love

Schooley: Covid has changed what normal is. I’m willing to do all of these activities but will remain up to date with vaccination and will mask when community transmission levels are higher, and I’m concerned about crowd density or ventilation.

Hotez: More or less because I am so maxed out in terms of boosts.

Volberding: I’d say things are pretty much back to normal, apart from masking in various places I go. In terms of my daily life, it’s receding. I don’t know whether the pandemic will fade from memory or linger on. Right now, though, I think people are eager to start looking back on it. I am actually going on a vacation next month with a cruise involved. I hope to be sitting outside a lot.

Schaffner: Not yet. I would do none of those.

Gandhi: There is nothing I won’t do because of covid.

Gayle: I think we’re about 75 percent there. I think masking in groups of people you don’t know and not shaking hands is prudent. I’m not sure we should ever return to what was normal before.

Q: Is there something you did that looking back now you say: That was so loony?

Walensky: Did we really need to wipe down our groceries? We didn’t know. We learned as we went and changed as we learned. When I think back to those times of deep fear, it doesn’t feel so crazy.

Volberding: The fragrance thing was kind of loony. I would spray perfume into the air and sniff every day to make sure I hadn’t lost my sense of smell. I still do it.

Gayle: Not something I did, but I remember some people telling me that they were stripping off their clothes down to their underwear before going into the house.

Schaffner: All that wiping off the groceries. And the library books that were put into quarantine. Today, those things look really d-u-m-b. I know why we did them, but they persisted much longer than they had to. My wife would wipe down everything I brought into the house — including me.


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