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A talk with Marin County’s health officer

April 27, 2020

Dr. Matt Willis, 54, is Marin County’s public health officer. He is also one of the county’s most recent Covid-19 patients. On March 23, Dr. Willis announced his positive test results via YouTube.

Mara Kardas-Nelson, from the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, caught up with Dr. Willis, who is now back at work. This interview has been edited for clarity.

What is it like to have this?

When you’re diagnosed with Covid-19, the question is: Which group am I going to fall into, the one with mild symptoms or the one that needs to be hospitalized? That uncertainty is a real challenge.

I started with the flu, fevers and chills, and then I felt better for a couple of days. I was optimistic that I would be better in a week. But then I had numbness in my hands, ringing in my ears, diarrhea and nausea, loss of taste and smell. I fell into the severe group. I literally spent 10 days in bed. I’ve never had anything like that before in my life. I was dependent on my wife, who is a physician, and three kids for everything.

I eventually went to the emergency department because I seemed to be getting worse. Saying goodbye to my wife at the E.R. door was one of the harder aspects of my illness. I knew that if I was hospitalized it might be a really long time before I saw my family again. So when the chest X-ray came back normal I decided I wanted to go home.

It sounds like you had a lot more support than most patients. How has your experience of being dependent affected the way you think about care others need?

Up until this point, our efforts have been around preventing a surge in patients at hospitals. My illness reminded me of the obvious: Underneath that tip of the iceberg there are a bunch of people who are really sick but not in the hospital, and they may be sick for weeks, and fully dependent for everything. If I were a single mom, there’s no way I would have been able to manage my kids, much less myself.

For me, one of the lessons from my illness is recognizing that we are still defining what we need to manage society in the era of Covid-19.

Have you made any policy changes based on your experience?

From a public health perspective, we’ve been focused on flattening the curve. So we’ve relied on others to take care of other really obvious and everyday needs, like meals and child care.

The first step is just recognizing that there’s a gap that needs to be filled. Our social services can care for children when parents are sick, but that is a small team based on very strict criteria that needs to be expanded.

You were gone for about two weeks. What were you most surprised by when you came back?

I became a patient just after we put the shelter-in-place order in, and when I resurfaced it was like, “Wow! We did pretty well.” The curve really has been flattened. Our hospitals are well protected; they have ample empty beds.

But we need to be thoughtful about the next stage. Part of the learning curve for me is understanding the uncertainty of my own course of illness. This is a powerful and unpredictable virus. I underestimated it and I have a lot more respect for what it can do, and a lot more humility around all that we don’t know.

Production Staff & Crew

Mara Kardas-Nelson ( 2020 )

Reporter – faculty/lecturer