As chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer, Dr. David Priest is Novant Health’s go-to expert on COVID-19. He leads COVID-19 treatment and prevention efforts throughout the health care system.

He's also set to lead the annual Novant Health Thanksgiving Day Parade as grand marshal, now in its 75th year. The event will "light up the night sky" in uptown Charlotte at 6 p.m. on Nov. 24.

Priest said he is "proud and humbled” to represent all front-line health care workers “who worked such long hours and put themselves in harm’s way to keep our community safe throughout this pandemic.”

Ahead of the parade, we sat down with him to talk about the pandemic, what gives him hope and what he does to escape.

When did you first hear about COVID-19, and what went through your head?

It was late December 2019 when I heard there was novel coronavirus in China. And my first thought was about the previous SARS outbreak. SARS had been controlled fairly quickly. There were some cases that left China and ended up in other parts of the world. I knew, as an organization, we would have to consider it.

The first week in February 2020, I started getting calls about team members who had been traveling to other parts of the world and were now returning. And I was getting questions from hospital leaders about what these people should do when they got home.

Your emerging infectious disease team tracks outbreaks, even small ones, across the globe. This one was different, right?

We’ve never had a pandemic quite like this.

However, we were always watching what was happening around the world and checking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates. Fortunately, we weren't caught flat-footed as an organization. We had people thinking about this and watching it. We also had emergency management folks and strategic sourcing teams who had experience with Ebola. So, we were prepared in terms of PPE and testing supplies.

Why did you go into infectious disease?

I ask myself that every day [laughs]. My medical heroes were infectious disease physicians; I was drawn to them because of how smart they were. I was worried that I was not smart enough to do it. In infectious disease, you're expected to know about diseases you've never seen. And so, you have to be prepared to recognize things that aren't part of your everyday work. That's the fun of it and also the challenge of it.

You’re very measured in public. Are there times you’re thinking: Wow! I can’t believe this.

About the virus itself – the clinical parts – I think we know how to deal with it so I don’t think “wow” too often. I sometimes do think “wow” over the psychology of the pandemic . The human response among the general public and among leaders has been fascinating and frustrating.

For me, the “wow” also comes from social media. We are living in an age of people purposefully putting out misinformation and questioning public health officials.

What’s the most outrageous claim you've seen?

There have been many false, unproven claims during the pandemic, which is incredibly sad to me because that leads to confusion and a lack of trust. Some of these claims are about medications with very little data behind them and others are purposeful misrepresentations of what we know will protect people.

Social media has amplified misinformation from small sources in big ways. I'm amazed at the faith people put in one social media post about a highly complex topic, like a pandemic.

What gives you hope?

The COVID vaccines continue to hold up incredibly well in preventing hospitalization and death despite the delta variant. That is an amazing triumph of medical science.

But, I remain concerned that we continue to politicize the pandemic. And when you politicize a public health crisis, it's not good for the nation. When people are given clear information and clear guidance, they do the right thing. And I just don't think they get enough of that.

Priest inside

What's impressed you most about healthcare providers during the pandemic?

It doesn’t matter what letters come after your name in a crisis like this. We saw certified medical assistants (CMAs) and nursing assistants who stepped up and put on their PPE and bravely went and cared for patients without a single complaint. It wasn't based on education level; it was based on personal character. And to see those team members step up and do their jobs in the face of a lot of uncertainty and a lot of misinformation was pretty inspiring.

What do you do to unwind?

To me, it's music. I play a few instruments – none of them particularly well. It just depends on the day which instrument I play – bass guitar, mandolin, some guitar. I also like listening to music on vinyl. Music is the way I escape.

How long have you been playing?

When I was in elementary school, I took some trumpet and piano lessons for a little while. And then football and sports took over. And then maybe 12 or 15 years ago, I decided to try to just pick up a mandolin and figure it out. I don't consider myself a musician; I'm just stubborn enough to stick with it. I believe that talent is overrated. Stubbornness can take you a long way.

What do you like to read?

I like historical nonfiction, big biographies. I also like history of medicine books because I like seeing how far we've come but also how far we have not come.

Priest family2
The Priest family: (L-R) David, daughter Olivia, wife Tammy, son Nathan

What advice would you give a med student considering infectious diseases?

It’s the coolest job in the world. I mean, medicine in general. You help people, you get to be intellectually stimulated. You work with incredibly smart people. Sure, there are some frustrations in modern medicine like electronic health records and (the fact that) things seem to be changing so fast, but at its core, I don't know what else you'd want to do besides this.

Infectious disease is not a particularly popular discipline. But it is very interesting. And a little esoteric. I’ve found that ID doctors like me tend to be a little weird, and that's kind of the coolness of it. If you like things a little weird, this might be for you.

What are you thankful for?

That’s a big one. Certainly, my family and their health. I'm also grateful for leadership in our organization. The team really said: We're going to care for our communities. And that’s what we’re doing.

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