The COVID-19 pandemic changed many things about the way we live our daily lives, turning some of the most basic health precautions like hand washing and wearing a face covering into something of a mantra. But it also turned Anthony Fauci, MD, outgoing top COVID adviser to the White House, into a household name after decades of public service. The former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) became a fixture on national news programs, answering questions for the public about how to best protect themselves from the deadly virus as information came in—and opening himself to criticism in the process. But in a parting interview, Fauci says he has some practical COVID safety advice that some might “hate” to hear. Read on to see what top health official says is the best course of action.
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During an on-air interview with local Washington, D.C. affiliate FOX 5 on Dec. 20, Fauci touched upon different points in his career and legacy now that he’s stepping down in two weeks after more than 50 years working in public health. While he said that COVID-19 wouldn’t define his decades-long career, he admitted that the virus created a serious challenge—especially in trying to keep the public informed in the early days.
“Of course, had we known all of that in the beginning, there are many things we would have done differently with regard to the recommendations about masking, about physical separation, and things like that,” he told FOX 5. “Of course.”
However, Fauci said that the criticism hurled his way in recent years hasn’t been able to affect his thinking or advice. And while it may not please everyone, he still firmly supports the use of testing, vaccines, and face masks to help people stay safe from COVID-19.
“The people who would hate me for telling someone they should get vaccinated or telling someone to wear a mask: It doesn’t bother me at all because that is based on things that are completely contrary to science,” he said. “I don’t have much trouble with that, and I’m not running a popularity contest.”
Fauci went on to discuss how the public’s experience with COVID-19 had somewhat shifted how people perceive infectious diseases and the health threat they pose. However, he still admitted that the belief hadn’t been universally adopted.
“I think people are very aware now that infections are important, and they can kill you,” he told FOX 5. “They’ve seen it in a very, very dramatic sense with COVID, which has already killed one million Americans—more than one million Americans.”
He pointed out that many will now likely approach outbreaks or surges in viruses like the seasonal flu or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) differently going forward. “I think people are more aware of the fact that serious infectious diseases can have an impact on society, and hopefully that will allow them to do what needs to be done to mitigate against that—like get vaccinated,” he said.
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Even though his position in public service is ending, other top officials are also promoting Fauci’s message of COVID-19 safety. During an appearance on ABC News’s This Week on Dec. 18, White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, said that vaccines were still crucial to protect against the virus in the face of rising cases as the holidays approach.
“The good news here is that we can prevent those infections from turning into serious illness if people go out and get that updated bivalent vaccine,” he said. “The updated vaccine is essential for keeping people out of the hospital. So we’re making the case that we’re at a point where it’s safe to gather, but you still have things to do. If we don’t do those things, obviously things can get much worse.”
Other officials have also recently echoed Fauci’s advice. During a Dec. 5 press briefing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said that the current surge of multiple viruses made safety precautions even more important.
“One need not wait on CDC action in order to put a mask on,” she told reporters. “We would encourage all of those safe, preventive measures—hand-washing, staying home when you’re sick, masking, increased ventilation—during respiratory virus season, but especially in areas of high COVID-19 community levels.”
During his interview, Fauci also made it clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was just one phase of his long career—and that even though his advice may not have been welcome news to everyone, it was always well-intentioned.
“If you look back at the track record, everything that I’ve ever done was in the purpose of preserving and protecting the health of the American public,” he told FOX 5.
But despite any backlash, Fauci still said he was just as unphased by the praise and media attention he received after his name recognition skyrocketed. Instead, the outgoing health official said he got fulfillment in accomplishing what he set out to do.
“It’s nice that some people, you know, idolize me and put me up on a pedestal, but I don’t get impressed by that. I never have,” he told FOX 5. “People may not understand that or believe it, but I focus like a laser beam on what my job is, and as I said before, and I mean that sincerely and my track record has proven it, my job and my mission is to serve and protect the health of the American public.”