While Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president, is the face of the nation’s COVID-19 public health campaign, Air Force Reserve Medical Officer Maj. Vin Gupta might be America’s next most widely recognized medical expert on the pandemic.
The Harvard-trained public health physician and critical-care pulmonologist has become a fixture on NBC and MSNBC’s coronavirus coverage and a well-known face on CNN, CBS and other media outlets during his two-year campaign to educate the public about a disease that has killed more than 1 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Combining his estimated 1,000 media appearances with a prolific Twitter feed has made Gupta a strong voice for the science behind mask wearing, vaccinations and a “whole-government approach” to strengthen preparedness for the next outbreak.
In his multiple day jobs, Gupta is Amazon’s chief medical officer for new products, affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, critical care pulmonologist and a major in the Air Force Reserve Medical Corps. He currently serves as Officer-in-Charge of the Critical Care Air Transport Team at the 446th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.
Living and working in Seattle, Gupta, 39, discusses in an email interview with Reserve & National Guard Magazine his insights into the country’s response to the pandemic; explains what might come next; and praises the role his military service has played in his medical career.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
How has your time in the Air Force influenced your ultimate career path and inspired you to work on global public health issues?
I’ve served in the Ready Reserve for seven years now, and each year of service has convinced me that I joined the force for the right reasons: to give back and to better understand how different parts of our society can work together to address global challenges proactively. I have two Masters (international relations, the other in public administration). Coupled with my medical training and interests in global health, my military service has given me important perspectives I would have otherwise never had, all while being incredibly humbling.
As a global health expert, you knew that increased global travel, urbanization, exploitation of the natural environment and other factors increased the likelihood of a global pandemic in your lifetime. Did you expect the United States to be better prepared for a global pandemic than it ultimately was?
Yes, I did. Every study published in the wake of the Ebola epidemic suggested we were well prepared for a pandemic, even if we had gaps. The reality of our actual response was certainly surprising to see, particularly since we live in an era of epidemics and pandemics. I hope the last two-and-a-half years will be a wake-up call for us all to realize that a pandemic can impact our way of life in ways that no other threat possibly can.
You’ve spent more than two years educating the American public about the pandemic, yet a significant percentage of people, including some service members, remain resistant to such messaging. What can be done to overcome COVID-19 vaccine skepticism?
While I believe there remain some folks that are reachable and simply want to be heard and be spoken to respectfully and nonjudgmentally, that isn’t everyone. Some people simply will not want to engage in this conversation, and we have to accept that at this stage.
I’m under no illusions otherwise, but I have tried hard to broaden my reach through an approach that emphasizes being understandable and apolitical. I tell patient stories and lean into visualizations because I think that can help build trust and convey genuine authenticity.
Omicron subvariant BA.1 and BA.2 appear to cause less severe disease, yet the death rate in the U.S. was higher during the delta surge this past winter. What lessons does this provide as we transition from the COVID-19 pandemic to an endemic?
The key lesson is that great vaccines against contagious respiratory viruses like omicron prevent severe outcomes like terrible pneumonia, but they do not necessarily prevent mild symptoms or positive tests. It’s why we get the flu shot – we know it’s not going to prevent testing positive, but it may keep you out of the hospital.
The better we are at clearly messaging on why we get vaccinated, the better the chance we have at building and maintaining trust and promoting comprehension.
Virus experts predict periodic surges of COVID-19 cases and warn of a potential wave next fall. What recommendations do you have as we navigate the months ahead?
I do believe the next six months are likely to feel less overwhelming, since hospital stress from COVID-19 is expected to abate, partly because of strong population-level immunity and also because of warmer weather. I do, worry, however, about next winter, since so many high-risk folks remain unboosted and respiratory viruses transmit more readily in colder, drier air.
If you are someone that is higher-risk medically, I’d urge you to continue to be vigilant in public places for the foreseeable future and wear a higher-quality, N95 like mask in places like grocery stores. I’d also urge higher-risk folks to ensure close communication with their primary care docs in the event that they may need one of the newer COVID-19 pill treatments, since time to treatment is critical in maximizing their effectiveness.
How has your time in the Air Force helped prepare you for your public-facing role as a medical analyst?
The Air Force teaches “integrity, service before self and excellence in all that we do.” At a time where misinformation remains rampant in our public discourse, I leaned into the core principles that the Air Force has taught me to be the most effective crisis communicator I could possibly be.
As a pulmonologist, professor, Amazon Care scientist and medical analyst your plate is overflowing. Why is it important to you to continue to serve in the Air Force Reserve Medical Corps?
My service to country keeps me centered and humble, focused on a deeply important mission, all while working with talented and gracious colleagues who are also serving for the same reasons. Don’t get me wrong – it’s exhausting serving in so many demanding roles and then giving up weekends and – potentially, weeks on end – for military service on top of it all. With two young kids at home and my wife as a pediatrician, staying organized and mentally present can be a huge challenge. But – ultimately – it’s these moments and opportunities that make my professional life so fulfilling.
How does your Air Force service and experience make you a better civilian physician?
I’ve learned skills as an aerospace critical care physician during my military medical training that I would have never learned as a civilian pulmonologist – advanced skills generally only known to ICU nurses on how to operate IV pumps, start A-lines and other hands-on techniques. I’m comfortable drawing up my own medications instead of relying on a pharmacist, as I normally would in a civilian hospital. In general, I’m just a far more independent ICU doctor because of the rigorous military medical training I undergo at regular intervals to ensure readiness for deployment.Read comments