Under normal circumstances, the chief medical executive in a given state rarely becomes well known. These, of course, aren’t normal circumstances. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun could never have expected when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tapped her for the role that within a year she’d be doing frequent live press briefings on TV as a global pandemic ravaged the population and pushed the state’s hospital systems to their limits.
It’s a lot for a 40-year-old who, like every other parent these days, is trying with her husband to juggle her work and the chaos that COVID-19 has added to her three kids’ educations. And that doesn’t even count the angry emails, cruel tweets, and unnerving news about the complex plot to kidnap Whitmer that upped the sense of danger for anyone prominently associated with mask mandates and shutdown orders.
“It is unfortunate that a basic and simple thing like wearing a mask has become political at a time when we’re losing family and friends to this virus every day, and we know basic things like masks work,” says Khaldun, who acknowledged she has increased security for her and her family.
Khaldun yearns for the pre-pandemic days when her job was focused on other public health challenges, such as lead poisoning and opioid use. Now, it’s all COVID, all the time.
Khaldun came to her current position as no stranger to public health crises. Previously, she was the director and health officer for the Detroit Health Department, where she focused on Detroit’s hepatitis A outbreak and reproductive health. Before that, she was chief medical officer at the Baltimore City Health Department, where the big concern was the opioid abuse epidemic.
Yet she still didn’t expect her role to be quite so public. As of late November, she’d missed just one of Whitmer’s press conferences. Many of those are stressful, such as the Nov. 15 briefing when she, Whitmer, and Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon announced new state restrictions to stem skyrocketing infections. It’s a miserable task to be the bearer of the science that decision-makers rely on, but Khaldun takes comfort in knowing it may prevent more sickness and death, she says.
She says she steels herself to break news no one wants to hear because that is what’s best for Michiganders, like when she said at another press conference on Nov. 19, “At the rates we’re seeing in the state, it is very likely that if you’re gathering for Thanksgiving, the virus will also be around the table.”
Privately, though, she, too, mourns the many losses. Holiday gatherings. Trick-or-treating. The contact sports her children love to play. “It’s challenging and it’s changed everyone’s lives, but I feel incredibly blessed,” Khaldun says. “I have a partner who can help with child care, and I have a job.”
To remain aware of the state of COVID on the medical front, Khaldun also works a couple of days each month in emergency at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. She now sees patients who were diagnosed in the spring and have lingering symptoms. Some have trouble walking. “I find that to be an incredible honor to see what’s happening firsthand, but I am at risk,” she says. “Of course, I’m concerned about that.”
Khaldun remains confident that better days are ahead. Although a vaccine won’t immediately alleviate the burden of the illness, it will bring the world one step closer to normalcy. Until then, she says, we must continue to take care and stay vigilant.
“I’m proud to be a Michigander. We were one of the hot spots for cases earlier this year, and we brought that curve down,” Khaldun says. “I’m confident we can get through this. This pandemic will pass, as have others.”