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Can I still go to the grocery store? How to interpret new coronavirus advice

Dr. Birx of the White House coronavirus task force said "this is not the moment to be going to the grocery store." Should you change your habits?
/ Source: TODAY

With the coronavirus outbreak intensifying, public health officials are stressing even more the importance of staying home and practicing social distancing when leaving the house for essential tasks.

Over the weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator of the White House's coronavirus task force, told the public, "This is the moment to not be going to the grocery store, not going to the pharmacy, but doing everything you can to keep your family and your friends safe, and that means everybody doing the 6-feet distancing, washing their hands."

While buying groceries and picking up medications are still considered essential activities in most states with lockdown orders, Birx's overall message is "absolutely minimizing our interaction with one another," NBC News contributor Dr. John Fair told TODAY co-anchor Hoda Kotb.

"We're going to have to do them occasionally," he clarified before reiterating that the goal is to cut back on activities that could "lead to breaking that social distancing protocol that we're trying to implement across the country."

In practice, Birx's comments don't necessarily mean you should change your behavior — provided that you've only been leaving your house for essential activities, Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, told TODAY.

"I think she was trying to say don't go to the pharmacy or the grocery store every day," he explained. "Plan what you're doing" to avoid making unnecessary trips outside, he added.

Social distancing measures are especially challenging — and important — for densely populated, urban areas, many of which are hot spots for the outbreak, such as New York City, New Orleans and Detroit. But Schaffner said that residents of areas with lower rates of COVID-19 should also take this call to action seriously.

"In places like Nashville that are warming up, most of us think the next two weeks are going to be critical from the point of view of just getting everyone on board with what we're doing," he said.

In fact, believing that fewer cases means fewer precautions is "the wrong interpretation of the data," he continued. "The point is prevention ... You'll keep from getting lots more cases if you prevent the virus from moving from one person to another right now."

Thanks at least in part to stay-at-home orders and social distancing, data from New York City over the weekend may indicate that deaths are slowing down. TODAY previously reported that deaths fell from 630 on Saturday to 594 on Sunday. That said, it's too early to lighten current recommendations, according NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres.

"There's a glimmer of hope," he told Kotb Monday morning. "We're seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, but ... the projections are showing this is going to be a bad week ... We still have to wait to see what happens as we start getting up that curve and finally coming down the backside."