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When 511 epidemiologists expect to fly, hug, and do 18 other everyday activities again

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (L) of the Public Health Agency of Sweden spoke next to Svante Werger of Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency during a press conference on a daily update on the coronavirus, in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday.
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (L) of the Public Health Agency of Sweden spoke next to Svante Werger of Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency during a press conference on a daily update on the coronavirus, in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday.ANDERS WIKLUND/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images/AFP via Getty Ima

Many epidemiologists are already comfortable going to the doctor, socializing with small groups outside, or bringing in mail, despite the coronavirus. But unless there’s an effective vaccine or treatment first, it will be more than a year before many say they will be willing to go to concerts, sporting events, or religious services. And some may never greet people with hugs or handshakes again.

These are the personal opinions of a group of 511 epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists who were asked by The New York Times when they expect to resume 20 activities of daily life.

“The answers have nothing to do with calendar time,” said Kristi McClamroch of the University at Albany.

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“Fresh air, sun, socialization, and a healthy activity will be just as important for my mental health as my physical well-being,” said Anala Gossai, a scientist at Flatiron Health, a health technology firm, who said she would socialize outdoors this summer.

Some said they would refrain from nearly all of the 20 activities until a vaccine for the virus had been widely distributed. Others said they would wait for a vaccine to do the indoor activities on the list.

“As much as I hate working at home, I think that working in a shared indoor space is the most dangerous thing we do,” said Sally Picciotto of the University of California Berkeley, one of the 18 percent of respondents who said they expected to wait at least a year before returning to the office.

For some of the activities, there was significant disagreement.

Some said hair salons were relatively safe — they aren’t usually crowded and have hygiene requirements — while others said a haircut had a high risk because of the face-to-face contact. Forty-one percent would go now or this summer, but 19 percent plan to wait at least a year. One-third said they would attend a dinner party at a friend’s home this summer (many specified outdoors with appropriate distancing), while one-fifth said they would wait more than a year, potentially until there was a vaccine.

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Epidemiologists say they are making decisions based on publicly available data for their region on things like infections and testing. Before choosing whether to do an activity, they might evaluate whether people are wearing masks, whether physical distancing is possible, and whether there are alternative ways to do it. Because there is a chance of a second wave of infections, they say they may become less comfortable with certain activities over time, not more.

Many epidemiologists said they may never greet people the same way again. Forty-two percent of the sample said they would not hug or shake hands for more than a year, and 6 percent said they would never do either again.

About 6,000 epidemiologists were invited to participate in the survey, which was circulated to the membership of the Society for Epidemiologic Research and to individual scientists. Some said they were uncomfortable making predictions based on time because they didn’t want to guess the timing of certain treatments or infection data.

One thing the epidemiologists seemed to agree on was that even when they return to normal activities, they will do them differently for a long time.