The Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) presented a major interdisciplinary star yesterday at its annual trade gathering when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health—and newly named Chief Medical Adviser for the Biden Administration—discussed the status of the global pandemic and vaccine rollout in the U.S. in an online conversation with Maurine D. Knighton, program director for the arts for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Fauci himself has a significant arts background, making him even that much more valuable in helping the performing arts community plan for the resumption of live performing arts programming and touring.
At the start of his Public Health and Re-Opening the Live Performing Arts virtual plenary session with Knighton—who observed that he was likely the only APAP participant with his own bobblehead figure—Fauci noted that his pre-med education included a grounding in humanities. This, he said, had a major impact on his career and the way he looked at challenges to global health.
In fact, Fauci had initially been a classics major, and studied Greek, Latin, and French. He later took various philosophy courses.
“I took enough science to get to med school, but I was grounded in the humanities, so I take a different look at global health,” he noted, being “as interested in human nature as physiology.”
Fauci also saw himself as a frustrated artist. Observing that his grandfather was an accomplished artist whose son was also one, and daughter’s child was a successful painter, he said that he “flirted with it as a hobby,” but the intensity of his main career prevented him from doing it “in earnest,” thereby leaving him the frustrated artist.
It certainly showed a different side to “the face of America’s fight against Coronavirus” (per the BBC).
Fauci further noted the virus’s “underappreciated impact on society” in “the lack of free access to the performing arts.” He said that the last performance he attended was Hamilton at the Kennedy Center, and that the succeeding loss of access to the performing arts has added to “the gloom” of the pandemic, although he did hail the many quality television offerings—none of which fully compensate.
Turning to his more intense main career and putting it in context of the APAP performing arts community, Fauci sadly saw an “extraordinary divisiveness in society” so extreme that it clouds all reasoning. The healthcare system was being overrun, he said, yet many people still deny the severity of the problem and maintain that it’s fake news, a conspiracy, or hoax.
“To me that’s total denial of reality,” Fauci said, stating that “there’s no easy answer” in getting around it other than to “continue to be very transparent” and clear in countering it, while trying to get “an overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated” amidst the craziness. Asked about the recent discoveries of coronavirus mutations, he said that people should understand that “RNA viruses continually mutate…but we have to keep an eye on it because every once in a while there’s a substantial change and effect.”
He added that the new mutations don’t appear to be more virulent or resistant to the vaccines, though the U.K. variant does seem to be more efficient in its spread.
As for spreading the virus in the APAP community, Fauci stressed that people don’t always know if they’re completely protected.
“If you’re on stage and everyone’s vaccinated, chances are very low that you’ll get it,” he said. “But when you’re in society and in a crowd you still need to wear a mask.”
“It’s no big deal walking around like this,” Fauci said as he donned a white mask. “People in Asia do it all the time. We’re getting used to it now, but maybe we should pay more attention to washing our hands more frequently.”
He spoke of the likelihood of infecting others if one unknowingly has the virus while not having symptoms—and doesn’t take the necessary steps to avoid spreading it. Recognizing that the performing arts have been particularly devastated and professionals are ready to return to work, Fauci looked to the fall of 2021 for achieving “enough herd immunity”—depending on 70-85 percent of the population having been vaccinated–for people to safely perform on stage or sit in an audience.
Assessing the relative danger between attending live performances and going to restaurants, gyms and religious gatherings, Fauci suggested that the performing arts trade take guidance from Germany in studying theater ventilation, especially the employment of industrial-sized air filters in maintaining clean air flow. But he cautioned against comparing the U.S. to other countries where infection levels are much lower: With over 4,000 coronavirus deaths a day, he said it doesn’t matter what you do since the risk is so great.
Here Fauci returned to the basics of wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing and vaccinating in order to “get the level of community spread as low as we possibly can.” He foresaw wide future availability of 10-minute Covid tests that if passed, could be used in permitting theater entrance. He also touched on the implications of tour routing, such that for a New York artist, for example, touring to Tulsa (“red-hot with infection”) would be less likely than Philadelphia, where the infection rate might be really low.
Noting that revered sports heroes like Steph Curry and Magic Johnson have been enormously helpful in heightening coronavirus awareness, Fauci felt that top performing artists could likewise influence followers.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda could get vaccinated in front of everybody and show people not to be so skeptical [of vaccinations],” he said, adding that theaters could also be used as vaccination locations. And proof of vaccination could also be required for admission to theatrical events.
Questioned whether international artists should be blocked from entering the U.S., Fauci felt that it was far more likely that they’d be wary of coming here, what with 300,000 new infections daily. He also noted that outdoor venues are far safer than indoors, thanks to natural breezes blowing away deleterious respiratory particles.
“We’re suffering Covid fatigue in this country,” Fauci concluded, citing Jan. 21 as the one-year anniversary of the first Covid case recognized in America.
“Don’t give up!” he implored, promising that help is on the way in the form of vaccines while urging all to continue implementing the “public health measures we know work. We will get back to normal. It will happen!”
And when it does, Knighton told Fauci, “we’ll be looking for you in our audiences!”
Interest in Fauci’s appearance was clearly high, as seen from steady attendee questions submitted in the online screen margin. And Fauci earned a big laugh when he admitted anxiousness over being asked to make a “pronouncement,” as it inevitably turns into a soundbite.
“Everything leaks out!” he acknowledged.