An Infectious Diseases Expert Compares COVID-19, Ebola, and MERS—Here’s How the Viruses are Different

“Each individual situation is different and frightening in its own way.”

Female medical researcher , epidemiologist from the front lines video

Until this year, many people considered a quick rinse under the faucet as washing their hands, and likely would’ve never considered wearing a mask if they weren’t feeling well. But for epidemiologists and infectious diseases, COVID-19 has pushed their expertise to the forefront.

Karen Passaretti, MD, an epidemiologist and infectious diseases doctor at Atrium Health, is her hospital’s subject matter expert, and helps formulate the health care system’s response to COVID-19. That means she helps brainstorm ideas to control the spread of coronavirus in the hospital, and how to protect and treat patients seeking help—all while keeping up to date on the newest information regarding the virus.

Highly infectious viruses aren’t new to Dr. Passaretti—but while she’s aware of other epidemics or pandemics, she maintains that COVID is different. “Ebola, MERS, and COVID are all very different types of infections…[but] my role is very similar in what I do as it relates to those viruses,” she says. She notes two distinct differences: “Ebola and MERS were very devastating to the individual who was infected, but we were able to contain those viruses from spreading within our communities,” she says. “COVID is not as deadly to the individual person…but obviously we have been much less successful in controlling the spread.”

That community spread is a big deal when it comes to COVID-19. “COVID can spread very easily out in the community, even from people before they know they have symptoms or without symptoms at all,” Dr. Passaretti says. “It really requires a community response to control the spread, it can’t just be hospitals focusing on the sickest of the sick.” In that case, she says wearing masks and staying home when sick—even with mild symptoms—are essential to keeping the virus contained.

The practices used to keep COVID outbreaks under control, however, are difficult to deal with too. “Over time, as people realized this is a marathon, not a sprint, there’s been a lot of fatigue,” Dr. Passaretti says. “Keeping up that level of attention to what needs to be done to control spread is hard to do for really long periods of time.”

Even Dr. Passaretti believes she underestimated the emotional impact of the virus. “I think actually dealing with health care providers that are scared to go home, that are scared to wear their dirty scrubs at home and have to strip in their garages because they’re worried about their children getting sick, seeing our health care workers trying to take care of patients and at times getting sick themselves, that’s very emotional for me,” she says. But at the same time, “Seeing the passion and the willingness to put [yourself] at risk to do what’s best for patients, that gives me hope.”

Another thing that gives Dr. Passaretti hope: The thought that, with small behavioral changes, we can begin to change the curve on COVID-19. “There’s a lot of hope that can be found in people’s responses, and the people that are doing work in hospitals and communities to try to prevent spread,” she says, recommending to keep what she calls the “Mr. Rogers model” in mind: “Look for the people that are running into the fire that are trying to do good, it’s always important to recognize that.”


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