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COVID-19 Survivor Who's Also An Epidemiologist Reflects On His Illness


Michael Saag is an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is also a survivor of COVID-19. Almost a month ago, Dr. Saag and his son, who is also a physician, came down with COVID-19 symptoms within days of each other. They are both now healthy. Dr. Saag wrote about his experiences in The Washington Post, and he joins us from his office at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Dr. Saag, thanks for being with us.

MICHAEL SAAG: Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: How are you feeling?

SAAG: I'm well, gratefully. It was a bad 14 days, but I'm recovered now and back at work.

SIMON: Could you tell us about those 14 days? How did you feel? What did you feel?

SAAG: Everything broke loose. I ended up with fever, chills, headache. By the time the morning arrived, I was better and I could function and think clearly, but then cruelly and relentlessly, the symptoms came back every single day in the late afternoon. And it just repeated itself. It felt a lot like "Groundhog Day." I didn't know if each night I would deteriorate and have to go in the hospital or whether I would survive the night. This sort of "Groundhog Day" experience went on all the way through day 14. So it was literally two weeks after my symptoms started that they disappeared thankfully.

SIMON: And I gather you tried an unproven remedy that some members of the administration seem to believe in a lot.

SAAG: Well, yes. So hydroxychloroquine, otherwise known as plaquenil, plus azithromycin. I called at least 10 colleagues around the world, actually, and asked, what do you think? And they all said, well, go ahead and try it, but we don't have any evidence for it. So I did. To be honest, I can't tell it did a hill of beans difference for me. Later, as I looked more into this, I sort of regretted my decision because these drugs, especially when used together, the hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin, can have electrocardiogram abnormalities, and that puts somebody at risk for sudden death. So in retrospect, I'm a little ashamed of myself that I was so cavalier.

SIMON: Dr. Saag, based on your professional expertise and your personal experience, how are we handling this pandemic in this country?

SAAG: Well, we had a slow start for sure. I think we're finally getting a grip on this. And I will say this - and this is a critical fact - for every day we delay implementation of stay-at-home, up to 40% of new cases will occur in that 24-hour period. So you can do the math in your head pretty quickly and see that thousands of cases are happening, so fortunately now most of the country is doing this, and it's having an impact.

SIMON: How does this end?

SAAG: Here's my thought. People are always asking, when can we let up, go back to life as we used to know it? And the answer really isn't when. That's the wrong question. The correct question is how? How do we stop the stay-at-home? My opinion is that if we just, let's say, pick a date - June 1, July 1, it doesn't matter to me. You pick your time when you pull back and you let people return to normal. I don't see how anything has changed from March 1. It's just that we've had a period where we were able to control transmission, but why would the virus suddenly be different and why would people's susceptibility be any different on July 1 than it is on March 1?

Rather, I think what we need to do is spend the next two to 2 1/2 months preparing for the release of the stay-at-home restrictions and start aggressive case contact tracing exactly like we do with tuberculosis, where a new case is identified and quickly, a team comes in, tests that individual, get them into care, get them isolated and then do tracing of every individual that has come into contact with them in the last two weeks. And then those individuals, depending on how their tests go, will either get into care if they're positive or be quarantined for another 14 days, and that's what we have to do. If we just release folks back into the community and do what we were doing in February, why would it be any different?

SIMON: Michael Saag is an associate dean at University of Alabama, Birmingham, and he directs the Center for AIDS research there. Dr. Saag, glad you're feeling better, and thanks so much for speaking with us.

SAAG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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