As the chief of the infectious diseases division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes oversees a variety of critical tasks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These range from regularly updating his team to responding to coronavirus-related research studies.
“There are full days for everybody,” said Kuritzkes, who is Jewish.
Kuritzkes begins work at 6 or 7 a.m. and goes until midnight. During that span, he might participate in a conference about the clinical care being provided, “especially around how many beds are available, how many people in the ICU, plans for expansion with more patients coming in,” he said. Meanwhile, he helps turn around reviews of research studies within 12 hours of their being proposed. “There are so many studies, all connected,” he said.
Noting that his role is primarily administrative, he said, “Certainly, people truly on the front lines bear the biggest burden, no question. It’s exhausting, emotionally draining work. I think we’re all trying to do our part, contribute any way we can.”
COVID-19 is the latest outbreak that Kuritzkes has been dealing with in his career of over 30 years as an infectious disease physician and prolific study author. Previous crises include toxic shock syndrome, Legionnaires’ disease, Lyme disease, HIV, Ebola, and pandemic influenza.
Of the novel coronavirus, “It’s unique in just how transmissible it is, how globally it spread in such a really explosive, rapid manner,” he said.
“Very clearly, it’s far more contagious than influenza, a lot more lethal than influenza, different from what we’ve seen in the past.” However, he added, “there’s an upside … It’s not as lethal as SARS, certainly not Ebola, nor is it HIV.”
“It could be a whole lot worse,” Kuritzkes said. “It’s not bubonic plague, and not the viruses of the movies.” But, he noted, “It’s certainly still an incredibly serious epidemic.”
When he spoke with the Jewish Journal last week, he predicted that the situation in Massachusetts might crest around April 20. However, he said at the time, “Right now it’s more of a prediction than anything else.”
He recommended that the general public follow definite public health guidelines from state and municipal authorities, including the Mass. Department of Public Health, Governor Charlie Baker and other civic leaders.
These measures include quarantines, which Kuritzkes said “really help limit the spread.” He also mentioned wearing masks when going out, including on the subway, as well as “keeping hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth.” People should “wash their hands when they come in from outside, around other people.”
Laid-off workers who stay indoors are playing a valuable role, the doctor said.
“As much as the focus is on health care workers at the forefront of the response to the epidemic – and I don’t mean to any way minimize the efforts of all my colleagues – all the people forced out of their jobs, bearing the economic brunt of the response to the epidemic, are at the forefront,” Kuritzkes said, adding that the epidemic would have been worse “if all of them had not stayed home.”
Kuritzkes follows his own advice when he gets home after another 18-hour workday. He’ll find a half-hour to play the piano. “I try to play through some of the pieces I’m working on learning,” he said. He appreciates the support of his wife, and, he said, “Having a family helps. Our kids are grown … We know our kids are doing well.” Medicine runs in the family: Their son Benjamin is an attending physician in the ICU of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. “Our son is much more in the thick,” Kuritzkes said.
Like many Jews across the country, Kuritzkes participated in a Zoom Seder for Passover. “More people participated this time than we were accustomed to having the last couple of years,” he said, with 19 family members from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Palm Springs.
“Usually we’re not all able to get together,” Kuritzkes said. “It was a treat. It was really nice.” Yet he regretted not being able to go to his late father’s Yahrzeit, instead having to observe the ritual virtually.
“I had to tune into a Zoom service from their congregation in Philadelphia,” he said. “I would rather have been able to go there.” He nevertheless called it “a poignant moment.”
Now that he has returned to work, he said, “the important things are to, first of all, focus on providing the best care to patients they can be in, and second, stay focused on the data.” And, he said, “sort of keep focused on the long term, the idea that the epidemic will run itself out, we will get through it, there’s light on the other end.”