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A Voice in the Darkness: How Dr. Petri Became a Champion During the Pandemic

dr petri was a voice of calm during the pandemic

You may have heard his name on the radio or seen him on TV. During the pandemic these last two years, William Petri, MD, UVA Health infectious disease expert, became something of a local celebrity. The Daily Progress named him one of the Distinguished Dozen, an annual list of remarkable community members. He's contributed to this blog, as well as to COVID-19 research. He even has his own Wikipedia page.

In his calm and clear way, Petri helped quell fears and clear up confusion about everything COVID during a scary, chaotic time. Now, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society is honoring Petri at their Dinner of Champions in Charlottesville, a fundraising event for MS research.

We reached out to Petri to get his personal take on his work during the pandemic, the award, and the highs and lows of battling COVID.

The Award, MS Research, and What Petri Learned During the Pandemic

What are you looking forward to about the Champions award dinner? Can we get a teaser of your speech? 

This is personal for me, as MS affected our infectious diseases division in a profound way. We were with Barry Farr, our late UVA Health epidemiologist, throughout his battle with the disease.

Barry would have loved to be at this event. His focus was always not on himself, but in helping others to cope with the disease. I might add that investing in MS research could not be more timely. Advances in understanding the role of infection and inflammation in MS should usher in a period of new therapies for this terrible disease.

What I am most looking forward to is sharing the dinner with my family, friends, and colleagues who have been there for me through 46 years at UVA. This is very special, as Charlottesville and UVA are so much of who I am. I came here as a medical student in 1976, became a Christian, met Mary Ann, married in the University Chapel, and raised our family here. My career as a physician and scientist has been formed by the teaching, guidance, and support I have received from our community and university.

And we are approaching the end of the pandemic! It is going to be so meaningful to me to celebrate with everyone.

My (very brief!) remarks at the dinner will be on how we can look back on the pandemic, honor the memory of lost family, friends, and patients, while celebrating the contributions and sacrifices of so many in medicine, science, and in the community that came forward to help.

In the words of Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — a time like no other.

You’re being honored for your commitment to the community during the pandemic. It's been remarkable how much you’ve helped keep the public informed about the virus — with facts, not fear or unscientific claims. What’s your biggest takeaway about how the sharing of healthcare information works, or doesn’t work, in our country/area?

My takeaway is that our own Daily Progress and the local TV and radio news worked well in putting out reliable information about COVID-19. They often used UVA Health experts as sources. The scientific publishing community made all reports on advances in COVID-19 available free of charge. And we saw the rise of “preprints”, non-peer reviewed papers, as a rapid way to get the word out. Scientific communication between scientists and with the public will never be the same, truly revolutionary.

What was less reliable I think was the “word-of-mouth” person-to-person communications that we ordinarily get so much of our information from. This is in part because our knowledge grew so rapidly. Not infrequently, what I thought was correct one day, the next day was proved to be wrong. Early on during the pandemic, for example, we didn't understand that masking was important, and we did not recognize that SARS-CoV-2 could be spread by someone with no symptoms.

And while on the subject of COVID-19, to the extent to which the Champions award is in recognition of communication and service to the community during the pandemic, I am honored to receive it on behalf of so many — the reporters who educated us all, and the nurses, hospitalists, respiratory therapists, intensivists, public health professionals, scientists, and volunteers who put their own health and that of their families' on the line to respond to the crisis. 

"At a time when many people retire, I have learned how to care for patients with a new disease, worked with the FDA for approval of new therapies, and, with my infectious diseases fellow Jen Sasson, led a clinical trial — all brand-new experiences."

Dr. William Petri

What advice do you give to the average person about how to tell what is real or not real medical info?

Consider the source of the information. Web-based communication from agencies such as the CDC, WHO, NIH, UVA Health, and VDH are wonderful sources. These healthcare organizations are comprised of healthcare professionals committed to communicating accurate medical information.

What’s been your biggest frustrations/obstacles during the pandemic? What would you do different – or want to happen differently – if we face a surge or pandemic from another virus?

My biggest frustration, after the vaccines came out, was to see unvaccinated people catch and suffer from a preventable infectious disease. Working with our hospitalists on the COVID ward, caring directly for patients with COVID-19, this was and is very real to me. Seeing someone who can’t catch their breath because of pneumonia is heartbreaking. Something that was frustrating as a scientist was the long delays inherent in getting NIH support for research on COVID-19. That frustration was soothed by the tremendous generosity of philanthropist Paul Manning, who has supported all of the advances we have made in COVID-19.

What I would do different next time (let’s hope there isn't a next time) is to move even faster on FDA approval of vaccines and therapeutics. Thank goodness for the fast Emergency Use Authorization that Congress gave to the FDA in anticipation that a pandemic might occur. But I think more deaths could have been averted by acting even more rapidly. At the same time, I understand why the FDA was cautious, as without the public trust in the new vaccines and therapies that comes from thorough review, they would not have been as widely accepted as they have been.

Any surprises or learnings about yourself and/or your role as a physician and leader?

One of my now-graduated students, Allie Donlan, PhD, gave her last lab meeting presentation today before heading to the University of Washington for her fellowship. Allie related at that meeting that what UVA taught her was that there are no boundaries to what we can accomplish as individuals. That is so true for me. At a time when many people retire, I have learned how to care for patients with a new disease, worked with the FDA for approval of new therapies, and, with my infectious diseases fellow Jen Sasson, led a clinical trial — all brand-new experiences.

You’ve been called a local hero and certainly, it seems like you’ve been tireless the last 2 years during the pandemic. How have you taken care of yourself?

To have heroes is a great thing. My heroes are our pulmonologists, Drs. Alex Kadl and Jeff Sturek, whom I have not seen except in grey scrubs for two years. Their devotion, and that of so many, to the care of our patients is where it begins and ends.

What We Learned During the Pandemic

Take a look at all the stories we wrote during the pandemic in its first 2 years.

What are you most proud of?

Every patient with COVID-19 who agreed to enroll in our clinical trial of the allergy drug Dupixent. I cannot express how inspiring it was, time and again, to hear from a seriously ill person that they wanted to be part of our trial “to help the next person” with this disease.

What’s next for you?

Mary Ann and I are now grandparents! So we have entered into that wonderful time of life when, in the words of my friend, fellow marathon runner and professor of chemistry, Cassandra Fraser, we have accomplished what we set out to do personally and professionally. So now is the time to just be nice to other people.

Hear More from Dr. Petri

UVA President Jim Ryan and Petri discuss the pandemic in an episode of the Inside UVA podcast.

Tags: covid-19

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