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What do you need to do to stay safe from the coronavirus? At a time when people are weighing the risk of everyday actions — from dining out, to riding transportation, to holding business meetings or having friends over for drinks — most of them look to experts for guidance.
So it’s important to know not just what experts say, but what they actually do. POLITICO reached out to five European epidemiologists to ask how they personally have changed their behavior because of the pandemic.
‘We do not have meetings of more than a handful of people’
— Eva Schernhammer, head of the department for epidemiology, University of Vienna
Schernhammer, who in recent weeks has given several interviews on the coronavirus pandemic in Austrian media, is keeping a strict routine. She isn’t receiving any guests at her home, and she limits nonessential activities outside to “mostly sports like running, hiking and swimming.” She doesn’t meet friends for dinner or drinks at bars or restaurants, be it indoors or outdoors, and she’s not planning on air travel this summer.
“Besides grocery stores and my department [at work], I avoid the indoors as much as possible,” Schernhammer said. She also tries to avoid using public transportation as much as she can. The one means of transport she feels safe using is her car.
As for protective measures at work — where her employer, a hospital, requested her to come back after six weeks of working from home, she now routinely wears masks whenever leaving her desk to go to the hallway.
“We separated office spaces within the same office if the desks are closer than 2 meters from each other, using plexiglass as shields,” Schernhammer said. “We do not have meetings or gatherings of more than a handful of people: Larger meetings, even if onsite, are held via Webex.”
‘I decided not to travel for some time’
— Fernando Rodríguez Artalejo, director of the doctoral program in epidemiology and public health, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid
After the big wave of infections that hit Madrid subsided, Rodríguez Artalejo’s life has returned largely to how it was before, with two big caveats. “I wear a mask, and I wash my hands very frequently. Basically everywhere,” explained the Spanish professor, who advised Madrid’s municipal government during the coronavirus outbreak.
He’s mainly working from home, with a trip to his university once a week — although he does now avoid public transport. While he’s at his office, he has a face mask on constantly.
He’s also started receiving guests again. “My children, who are already adults, visit me with their girlfriends,” he said. “I also host my aunt, who is a lot older and lives in another house.” He has four close friends whom he entertains — two who have already had COVID-19, and another two who haven’t.
This is a personal choice, he explained: “In Spain, there’s no limit to having 20 or 30 people in your house. The problem is that we know that some of the many outbreaks that are occurring resulted precisely from big family gatherings.”
As for travel, which he used to do frequently, “I’ve suspended many international trips I had planned. Right now, I decided not to travel for some time.”
The reason isn’t that he thinks airplanes are unsafe, but that “the situation isn’t stable.” He explains: “I can’t exclude that the place I’m going to will be locked down.”
‘I wash my hands a lot more now’
— Marina Pollán, director of National Center for Epidemiology, Health Institute Carlos III
Pollán, who caught the virus, believes that experts like herself should set an “exemplary” example. But she also admits that sometimes, when she’s on the street and no one is around, she takes her mask off.
As head of Spain’s National Center for Epidemiology, Pollán has been tasked with organizing the monitoring and analysis of epidemiological data related to the pandemic. She has also coordinated a wide-scale study of the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies in the Spanish population.
“I wash my hands a lot more now,” she said. “I did before of course, but now I’m careful whenever I return home from having been walking on the street, or when I go to the city center.”
House visits have resumed in small groups. When she meets her friends now, they sit outside. At family gatherings, everyone tries to maintain social distancing, but elbow greetings are something that “I just don’t like!”
The new-found awareness of the importance of hand hygiene is positive, she said. “The habit of touching our faces less, of washing our hands more, of being aware that our hands can be vehicles for germs” is good to remember in general. But she worries about the long-term effects of always wearing masks for the elderly, who already tended to be more socially isolated compared with the rest of the population.
“It makes me sad to think that we have to always live with masks, because it makes social relations more difficult,” she said. “It’s hard to know if people are smiling.”
‘My mask protects them, and their mask protects me’
— Charmaine Gauci, Malta’s superintendent of public health
Every time she visits her parents or in-laws, Gauci says they try to stay in the garden as much as possible. If they go inside, everyone puts masks on, she said. “At the initial stage, it was hard for them to understand that my mask protects them and their mask protects me,” she said about her parents.
Gauci has become the face of the Maltese authorities’ response to the pandemic, logging in more than 70 televised public briefings, which were held daily at the height of the outbreak on the island.
Malta’s top doctor said she first dined out since the beginning of the pandemic at the beginning of July. “It was a nice experience because we chose an area of the restaurant which is on the outside,” she said. The waiters and other restaurant staff were wearing masks or visors.
“What I’m very careful about — and we also advocated — [is] that you limit the sharing of food if you are with other friends,” she said.
Gauci doesn’t wear a mask in the office because there is distance between her and her work colleagues. “But also because we are in the same bubble,” she said. Her workmates work closely with each other and take care of themselves outside their bubbles.
Gauci works with some other 20 people in the office, handling Malta’s response to coronavirus, and with other 16 in another office, where she is in charge of other public health issues. When she’s in meetings where social distancing isn’t possible, Gauci wears a mask.
‘I haven’t gotten back to the cinema yet’
— Erika Vlieghe, head of the department of general internal medicine, infectious diseases and tropical medicine, University Hospital Antwerp
Vlieghe’s busy work life barely leaves her time for social activities. For the past months, she’s been Belgium’s federal government’s top adviser on lifting — and if necessary, reimposing — a lockdown. In her rare moments of free time, she avoids going to any place that could get crowded. “I haven’t gotten back to the cinema yet,” she said.
She did go to a restaurant, but only once, and it made her feel “a little bit uncomfortable.”
If she ends up in a market that can get possibly crowded, she wears a mask. “Most of my leisurely activities are just with my boyfriend, my children and my close family,” she said.
Vlieghe says she misses hugging her friends and thinks it’s going to take some time until people can go back to doing that safely. “There are lots of people who are shaking hands again,” she said. “I absolutely would not recommend that.”
One thing Vlieghe is definitely not doing is taking a holiday abroad, where she would need to get on a plane.
“You meet too many people while on your way, and you’re not flexible enough if something happens in the country where you are,” she said. “I don’t consider that safe for the moment.”
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.