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December 8, 2020

The riskiest (and safest) activities in the coronavirus epidemic, according to 700 epidemiologists

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    As Americans grapple with another surge in new coronavirus cases, many are wondering which activities of day-to-day life are safe—and which place them at high risk of exposure. The New York Times surveyed 700 epidemiologists to find out.

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    The Times conducted the survey from Nov. 18 to Dec. 2. The Times emailed the survey to 8,000 individual scientists and members of the Society for Epidemiologic Research, and 700 responded.

    Which activities are low risk—and which activities are the riskiest

    According to the Times' "The Upshot," many of the epidemiologists surveyed said they've changed their behavior as the coronavirus pandemic has progressed and researchers learned more about how the novel coronavirus spreads. For example, a large portion of the epidemiologists said they now see friends outdoors and many have resumed trips to the grocery store, "The Upshot" reports. But largely, the epidemiologists are still very cautious about their day-to-day activities, and there are some activities they avoid completely.

    The Times asked the epidemiologists about whether they partake in 23 different activities of daily life, and there were just three in which a majority of the respondents said they have done in the previous 30 days or they would have done in the prior 30 days if needed: bringing in mail without taking any special precautions; gathering with friends outdoors; and running certain errands in person, such as going to the grocery store or pharmacy.

    In contrast, there were some activities that nearly all of the epidemiologists reported avoiding completely—including some activities "that many Americans are doing now," "The Upshot" reports. Those activities included attending a funeral or wedding; going to a concert, play, or sporting event; and meeting someone they don't know well in person.

    The Times also asked the epidemiologists to rate the risk level of the 23 different activities of daily life activities. Overall, the activities they deemed as the least risky are:

    1. Bringing mail into your home without taking any precautions;
    2. Gathering or hiking with friends outdoors; and
    3. Doing errands such as grocery shopping and going to the pharmacy in person.

    The riskiest activities, according to the epidemiologists, are:

    1. Eating at a restaurant indoors;
    2. Attending a funeral or wedding; and
    3. Attending a concert, play, or sporting event.

    The Times also asked the epidemiologists how they intend to spend the upcoming Christmas, Hanukkah, and other winter holidays, and 75% said they would spend them only with members of their households or they won't celebrate them at all, which is similar to what they did for Thanksgiving, "The Upshot" reports.

    When will life return to 'normal'?

    Even though America is likely to soon have an authorized vaccine against the novel coronavirus, many of the epidemiologists surveyed said they don't "expect their lives to return to pre-pandemic normal" until a majority of Americans receive the vaccine, "The Upshot" reports. Specifically, 50% of the epidemiologists surveyed said they won't change their personal behavior until 70% or more of the U.S. population is vaccinated, while 30% said they would change their behavior in some ways once they, themselves, are vaccinated.

    "I would change some behaviors but not others," Gabriela Vazquez Benitez, a senior research investigator at HealthPartners Institute, told the Times. "I would do some minimal travel, small indoor gatherings with other close relatives when I am vaccinated, but maintain safety precautions such as wearing a mask and social distance."

    Assuming highly effective vaccines against the new coronavirus are administered widely, a minority of the epidemiologists said they think it could be safe for Americans to begin easing coronavirus mitigation measures next summer.

    "I am optimistic that the encouraging vaccine results mean we'll be back on track by or during summer 2021," Kelly Strutz, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, told the Times.

    However, a majority of the epidemiologists said it will likely be at least a year until it's safe to restart many activities in America, even with the wide administration of highly effective vaccines. And, they said, some activities may never be the same as they were before the pandemic, "The Upshot" reports.

    For instance, Ellicott Matthay, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California-San Francisco, told the Times, "Being in close proximity to people I don't know will always feel less safe than it used to."

    And Karin Michels, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California-Los Angeles, said it likely will be many years until it's safe to "return to approximately the lifestyle we had" before the pandemic. "We have to settle to live with the virus," she said.

    But many of the epidemiologists said their predictions about America's coronavirus epidemic depend on various factors that could shift as time goes on, "The Upshot" reports, meaning their assessments could change, as well.

    Emeli Anderson, a doctoral student of epidemiology at Emory University, said, "It entirely depends upon what we do as a nation to address the pandemic," adding, "Right now, we are not nearly doing enough" (Sanger-Katz et al., "The Upshot," New York Times, 12/4).

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