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Seasoned by work with Ebola and HIV, UNC doctor becomes a leading voice on coronavirus

By Richard Stradling, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) on

Published in News & Features

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Dr. David Wohl mostly divided his time last year between treating patients with HIV and helping study the long-term effects of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and setting up a program to study the deadly Lassa fever there. He figures he spoke to two reporters all year.

This year, Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at UNC Health in Chapel Hill, has devoted nearly all his time to the coronavirus. He helped set up UNC's virus testing program and helped develop procedures so doctors, nurses and others at UNC's 11 hospitals could treat COVID-19 patients without getting infected themselves.

He has helped lead research and clinical trials for coronavirus vaccines and treatments.

Through it all, the press has turned to Wohl to help explain the ever-changing pandemic and the science behind it. He takes part in news conferences and speaks with reporters every week.

Wohl says tailoring messages about a complicated virus through different types of media — both TV and print — can be a challenge. But it's part of the job, and it's one he takes seriously as the pandemic continues to worsen in North Carolina and around the world.

"I think many of us feel there's an obligation under the current circumstances to share information that's accurate, that's based in the science," he tells The News & Observer in an interview. "Without there being people who are doing this work, who understand the data, explaining this, there's a vacuum that gets filled by less-informed voices."

 

Wohl is not alone in this effort. Public health and infectious disease doctors who normally work far from the spotlight have been sought out for their expertise and guidance. They include Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina's Secretary of Health and Human Services, but also scientists at places such as Duke and East Carolina universities and RTI International.

Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, the State Health Director, said people like Wohl at universities and research centers in North Carolina have been vital to the state's response to COVID-19. Because it's a new disease, what doctors and researchers know about how the virus spreads and makes people sick changes and evolves, which can be confusing, Tilson said.

"It is so great to have our partners, respected voices in our universities, in our health system, who are carrying consistent messages," she said. "It's a huge benefit to us to have these trusted voices."

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