Anthony Fauci is probably one of the most recognizable faces of the coronavirus pandemic in the US. So when a public health expert needed a way to measure how her students were coping with all of the stresses of 2020, she created a chart to gauge their “level of Fauci.”
“We all kind of need something that’s positive, that makes sense to us,” Karen Sautter Errichetti, an assistant professor in public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, said. She’d noticed that her community of public health and medical professionals was feeling pretty depressed. So to lighten the mood and get the students interested, she and her co-instructor Reece Lyerly start every class with a meme of some sort.
Nothing caught on quite like the Fauci meter, which she introduced to her students back in September. The hardest photo to find was one of Fauci full-on smiling, she notes.
“As educators we need to understand if our students are doing well or if they’re struggling. And a lot of them are struggling,” she said. Asking questions like “are you depressed, do you have anxiety” doesn’t usually work, she added, so she tried to get a bit creative, using a face that her students identified with.
She presented it on a five-part Likert scale, which is widely used in research questionnaires. (Errichetti is quick to note the Fauci chart hasn’t been validated as it would be in serious research.) Students indicate which “Fauci” they are feeling that day with the number associated with each image — a “one” is Fauci in a full grin, a “five” shows him stroking his brow in frustration.
Errichetti later made another chart, with nine Fauci images, after some people on social media requested a more nuanced Fauci meter. But she says that one’s even less scientific than the five-photo chart.
The meme has made it beyond the classroom and social media; Errichetti said Lyerly showed it to some colleagues at the National Institutes of Health. “So then I get this cryptic text message from [Lyerly] saying ‘you’re never going to believe this,’” she said. “He told me ‘it’s made the rounds at NIH and Tony has seen it.’” It’s not the way she pictured being introduced to Fauci, Errichetti said. “Yeah that’s not the way my career was supposed to go,” she added with a chuckle.
Fauci’s fan base both inside and outside the medical community is pretty well-known; fans have created TikTok videos, games, prayer candles, and Twitter accounts to show their support. Of course, Fauci has been on the receiving end of some hateful vitriol as well, including death threats against him and his family that prompted a security detail. He’s also fallen out of favor with the White House recently for his blunt, honest assessment of how the pandemic is being handled. And over the weekend, the president responded to chants of “Fire Fauci” at a rally with “let me wait a little bit until after the election.”
“He’s the example everybody goes to”
But Errichetti said she and her students have tremendous respect for Fauci and the work he does. “Our job is to communicate with the public and to be honest, and to treat people with respect, and he does that well,” she said. “When we teach about how to deal with researched data, he’s the example everybody goes to.”
“If anyone is going to meme him, It should be somebody who’s an epidemiologist who has a sense of humor,” she said.
We reached out to the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to see if we could get Fauci’s take on the chart. We’ll update this story if we hear back. (Likely, they have a few other things on their plates at the moment.)
For her part, Errichetti said she would love to know how Fauci would rank himself on the Fauci meter and hopes the chart brings a little bit of levity to other health professionals who are struggling with — well, take a look around. “But this was fun for me, sitting here as an epidemiologist during a pandemic when everyone else is trying to be one,” she said. “And you know, creating your own memes, that’s a little bit of your own kind of medicine.”