October 25th, 2022

Yes, Even ID Doctors Get COVID — Including Famous Ones

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, various public figures have contracted the disease.

Tom Hanks, way back in early March 2020, was arguably the first globally famous person in the world to test positive for the virus. The announcement came right as much of the world prepared to shut down. My friends and I were wrapping up what would be our last indoor poker game for over a year when the news broke.

“Tom Hanks and wife test positive for corona,” said my friend Scott, looking at his phone between hands. We all reflexively reached for the hand sanitizer I’d strategically placed beside each person’s chair. Hey, back then it was fomites — remember?

Hanks made the news public in a typically generous and optimistic way. He’s the nicest super-famous-rich person on the planet, isn’t he? And his COVID episode elicited sympathy, and hope for a quick recovery, for both him and his wife.

But he’s a beloved actor, and hardly the kind of person to bring out the meanies.

Because since then, in lockstep with a virus that has infected a massive proportion of the world’s population, we’ve had a veritable cavalcade of famous people come down with COVID.

Let’s see, off the top of my head — two presidents, one vice president, prime ministers, numerous other politicians, multiple actors, several radio and TV talk show hosts, athletes, rock stars. You name it.

Plus, Tony Fauci.

And now, my friend and former colleague, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. The announcement came just as we were finishing our first in-person meeting, IDWeek — which, as I predicted, was filled with unmasked work-related and social gatherings in conference rooms, hotel lobbies, and restaurants.

“This Marriott must have some special anti-infective power,” said one of my colleagues. “Seems when you leave the convention center and enter the lobby, you no longer need a mask.”

So why bring up the CDC director’s case of COVID? Because it has elicited one of my least favorite aspects of the pandemic since it started — the tendency for some people to gloat about another person’s illness, criticize that person, and to use it as a way of endorsing their particular stance on the disease.

Look, I made no secret about my opinion on how our former president handled the pandemic in the spring of 2020. But when he came down with COVID in the fall of that year, in the pre-vaccine era, and got pretty darn sick, I never wrote, or even said Good — he deserves it. Same goes for the parade of COVID-denialist radio talk show hosts, whose deaths struck me as both pathetic and tragic.

Frankly, it pained me to hear some friends and colleagues take this stance, and I shared my views with them at the time. You’re reveling in the illness and misery of others? Doesn’t that make you feel yucky?

Same happened with Dr. Fauci, and now Dr. Walensky — the negative reactions come from all around. Anti-vaxxers and libertarians on one side, COVID-zero and public health zealots on the other. Implication? You’re responsible for the mess we’re in; now this is your just desserts.

It’s painful to see and makes me so uncomfortable. Because the reality is that we’re all struggling to do our best with this tricky virus, which was only discovered in early 2020 — and hence leaves us reading a very new, and sometimes non-existent, playbook. There is no person whose call on policies or predictions could be 100% right, 100% of the time. Doesn’t matter how smart or famous you are.

So here’s a bold idea — how about we treat every person’s illness with the kindness and compassion we’d want when our friends, our family members, and we ourselves get sick?

It’s really not so hard to do, is it? After all, we did it with Tom Hanks.

12 Responses to “Yes, Even ID Doctors Get COVID — Including Famous Ones”

  1. Dilton says:

    Thank you for sharing your common sense and sanity.

  2. Rebecca says:

    After reading this I’m beginning to think of you as a writer first ID doctor second.
    Please keep doing both.

    • Gordon says:

      I agree, Dr. Sax has amazing talents in both ID, expository writing and opinion pieces. Many of his opinion pieces are worthy of a much larger audience than this blog.

  3. Nancy Kollidch says:

    The best way I have gotten through this is words from my friend (a retired RN )as friends and family all boosted and masked have gotten Covid
    “No shame no blame”
    thanks for your essay
    Nancy(retired ID MD)

  4. Nancy Kollisch says:

    my last name is
    Kollisch
    (My typo)

  5. Denis B. Hart MD says:

    Excellent post, Dr. Sax. It reminded me of a quotation by the Dalai Lama XIV.

    “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. And be kinder than is necessary.”

  6. Kannan T S says:

    Empathy is a clinician’s must!

  7. Tibor Bakacs says:

    Dear D. Sax,

    I have read your compassionate paper with great interest. While I agree with you that “we’re all struggling to do our best with this tricky virus” perhaps not every stone has been left unturned yet.

    We just published an editorial about a complementary therapeutic strategy to fight COVID-19 and other viral infections with non-pathogenic viruses in Frontiers Immunology (https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2022.1046851).

    An expert team of NIH ACTIV came to the conclusion that our drug candidate shows merit as a potential treatment for COVID-19. We discussed the conditions for conducting a phase I safety study for persons acutely infected with SARS‑CoV‑2 with the Paul Ehrlich Institute in Germany.

    For your information, viral superinfection therapy has already been demonstrated to be clinically safe and effective in five different viral infections (HAV, HBV, HCV, SARS-CoV-2, and HZV). Our viral drug candidate (infectious bursal disease virus; IBDV-R903/78) can be orally administered in an outpatient setting providing the greatest ease of dosing and the highest chance of patient compliance. IBDV is simple to manufacture and will be affordable even in resource-limited countries.

    Best regards,

    Tibor Bakacs, M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc.

  8. Jim Recht, MD says:

    Yes, Dr. Sax writes eloquently. Clearly, he’s a great ID doc too.

    But he’s wrong on this one. His is a “straw man” argument.

    Nobody I know is reveling in the misery of anyone who suffers a COVID-19 infection. Physicians (like myself) have a moral prerogative to speak out when our leaders (like Rochelle Walensky) commit harmful errors in judgment and behavior. The CDC under Dr. Walensky has emphasized “personal choice” in ways that are frankly destructive and irresponsible, and that have done real damage to our nation’s public health mission. Criticizing her for these actions is not the same as reveling in her misery. The ironic fact that she has fallen victim to this disease is not a reason to ignore her failures.

  9. Matt Cornell says:

    Counterpoint: When the people in charge of gun safety keep shooting themselves in the foot, it’s not wrong to point out that they’re bleeding.

  10. Jim Recht, MD says:

    Who would disagree that it’s wrong to revel in the misery of others? This opinion piece is a distraction from the issue that influential thinkers like Dr. Sax should be focused on: an unprecedented failure of leadership at the CDC. Under Wallensky, the CDC has emphasized personal choice (“you do you”) over science. As a consequence, vulnerable populations are being harmed — and the mission of public health in this country has suffered potentially irreparable harm. This is true regardless of ones (to use a terribly unfortunate, inapt phrase of Dr. Sax) “particular stance on the disease.”

  11. Donna Futterman says:

    Paul, thank you and totally agree. Compassion is ALWAYS required, although hard at times with “haters”. Re: Dr Walensky at CDC- she is a friend so I always seek to give her the benefit of the doubt even if I may initially disagree. I have often come to see the wisdom of her words and policies after sitting with them a bit. Also, she is not the final word on policy and Biden has to grapple with Republican unreasonableness and unwillingness to fund. So tragic this pandemic got so politicized.

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

Learn more about HIV and ID Observations.