Stop Panicking About the COVID-19 Variants

COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations are plummeting. Vaccine distribution is accelerating. After nearly a year, it seems we have finally reached the beginning of the end of the pandemic. As things continue to wind down, we're starting a series called "Pandemic Exit Interviews" — a weekly series with a person of local interest who played a central role in the pandemic. We'll ask each figure to share what they've learned, what they regret and where they see things going from here.

Read the first installment here: Only one thing shocked UCSF's Bob Wachter about the pandemic

Dr. Monica Gandhi is not your typical epidemiologist in the era of COVID-19.

While the vast majority of experts in her field call for the most stringent business closures and other mitigation measures, Gandhi — a professor of medicine at UCSF — has called for a "harm reduction" approach that also considers other risks beyond COVID-19 infection when making public policy.

That view has not been a popular one among policymakers and experts in her city and state. But Gandhi is confident that one day, she'll be vindicated.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

SFGATE: You are one of the few "harm reductionists" in public health. Can you describe the difference between the “harm reductionists" and the “lockdownists,” as you've referred to them in the past?

Gandhi: I would say that harm reductionists like myself believe we can’t completely keep people away from each other, and that using really extreme language like "stay-at-home order," or "see no one else" does not take into account human nature, loneliness and the economic reality that a lot of people need to go to work to survive.

I've long been concerned that the public health messages are only tailored to people who can work from home, people who work in tech and people with intact families and no need to see other people. Harm reductionists believe we should be giving messages that acknowledge some people will need to take some risks regarding COVID-19, and we should try to tell them how to keep safe in situations when in they're in public or seeing others.

San Francisco was a place of harm reduction when it came to HIV and sexual health.  Therefore, I was surprised that there were so few scientists in San Francisco (out loud, anyway) speaking of the need for harm reduction in San Francisco when it