CORONAVIRUS

Iowa's coronavirus whisperer thrust into prominence

Iowa Public Health Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati speaks April 23 as Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, watches while they u
Iowa Public Health Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati speaks April 23 as Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, watches while they update the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the state emergency operations center in Johnston. “As challenging and as unfortunate as this whole virus has been,” Pedati said in an interview, “this is exactly the kind of work that I want to do and the way that I want to be useful in public health.” (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)
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DES MOINES — A pediatrician by trade, one of the things that drew Caitlin Pedati to public health service was the ability to address health issues on a larger scale.

“As much as I loved medicine — and I do, I loved taking care of kids — it did feel like I was seeing some of the same problems again and again,” Pedati said in an interview last week, “and it made me think of ways I could address more people at once.”

Pedati now is one of the central figures in the effort to protect more than 3 million Iowans during a pandemic.

Dr. Caitlin Pedati is Iowa’s state epidemiologist and medical director for the state Department of Public Health. Pedati, 34, has become a vitally important and very public figure in the weeks since the new coronavirus was first detected in Iowa in early March. She provides the Public Health Department’s guidance that helps Gov. Kim Reynolds set policy, and regularly appears with the governor at daily briefings.

The scope of the pandemic — caused by the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes — is unlike any since a worldwide influenza outbreak over a century ago. As of Friday, more than 300,000 people worldwide and nearly 88,000 Americans had died from the disease. Iowa recorded 346 deaths as of Saturday.

Pedati and the Public Health Department’s work has helped inform Reynolds as the governor has made myriad critical decisions, including to temporarily shut down schools and many businesses, and more recently when to begin relaxing some of those business restrictions.

To hear Pedati and those who know her well describe it, she is in the right place at the right time.

“As challenging and as unfortunate as this whole virus has been,” Pedati said, “this is exactly the kind of work that I want to do and the way that I want to be useful in public health.”

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Dr. Jeneane Moody is an instructor in Des Moines University’s public health program and a former executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association. In her former role, Moody was on the team that interviewed candidates for the state epidemiologist opening when Pedati was hired into the $174,000 a year position.

Moody said she was impressed by Pedati’s varied experiences in both clinical medicine and public health, and found Pedati to be an excellent communicator. They are all attributes that serve Pedati well as she helps attempt to manage a pandemic, Moody said.

“She’s legit and uniquely qualified,” Moody said. “I know that she is young, but I know that she has unique qualifications that have prepared her really well.”

Dr. Patricia Quinlisk was the state epidemiologist before Pedati. Quinlisk retired in 2018 after serving 24 years in the position under both Republican and Democratic governors.

Quinlisk praised Pedati’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying only that it’s unfortunate Pedati was forced to face the pandemic at an early stage in her career.

“Obviously we wouldn’t have hired her, she wouldn’t have been the one, if we did not think she could do the job,” Quinlisk said. “I think Caitlin’s doing a great job. But I do feel sorry that this is coming so early in her career, not later in her career.”

Pedati said she is intrigued by the “disease detective work” involved in public health, a curiosity that would seem handy during a pandemic that features a new disease for which there is no vaccine.

“I really enjoy working in a situation where we can be flexible and come up with creative ways to help people. Those were the kinds of things I wanted to do in a broad way,” Pedati said. “Whether we’re taking about COVID, vaping, hypertension, Zika (virus) or anything else, there’s a breadth of work and a lot of things that affect people’s health on a day-to-day basis. And I really love being able to look at that range of things and look at what the population that I serve needs and how can we get them what they need.”

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That was not always the case. Pedati said growing up in northern Virginia, she wanted to be a doctor. She would get excited, she said, when one of her two sisters was sick because she liked tagging along to see the doctor.

She went to medical school and became a board certified and licensed pediatrician. But while getting her undergraduate degree at Georgetown University, she also started learning about public health, in part at the behest of some of her professors.

And one of her first projects as a student, she said, was Virginia’s Arlington County develop pandemic response plans. The project was to imagine a pandemic like an influenza outbreak and develop response plans for health care settings and businesses.

“That was my first experience with what population health or public health meant,” she said.

While Pedati said she could not have foreseen that she would be on the front lines of a state’s response to a global pandemic, that project from early in her education illustrates how epidemiologists prepare for outbreaks.

“I don’t know that I could have quite exactly predicted this, that’s for sure. But I do think people in our field, we’ve talked about this for years. And we really do a lot of planning and thinking about ways that we can be ready for situations like this,” Pedati said.

Quinlisk said epidemiologists not only prepare for future outbreaks, they study outbreaks of the past. She said she even remembers asking her grandmother about the 1918 flu pandemic.

“I think you always know in the back of your mind it’s possible just because you look at history. When you study epidemiology, you study history,” Quinlisk said. “So you know that those things can happen. But I don’t know that you ever think that it’s going to be as global as this is.”

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In addition to making Pedati’s work more critical, the COVID-19 pandemic has made her work more public. She regularly appears at daily briefings on the state’s pandemic response — briefings seen by thousands of people on television and over the internet.

Pedati said she feels it is critically important to convey the department’s goals and strategies to the public. She said she understands there are critics of some of the state’s response strategies, and she welcomes those viewpoints as well.

“I want the people to know about what we do and how we do it and why we do it,” she said.

Pedati joked that she even found one critic back in northern Virginia: Her mother told her she needed to stop praising every question reporters posed to her at the daily briefings.

Moody lauded Pedati’s communication skills. She said Pedati has shown she can be an intent listener and provide a helpful answer without overwhelming people with medical jargon.

“She’s a good listener … I think that serves her really well in this moment,” Moody said. “You have to communicate the science of your head and you have to communicate with your heart.”

Pedati said the new coronavirus has presented a unique challenge because it is new and more is being learned about it daily. She said the state’s response effort has been a collaborative approach between the state Public Health Department, fellow public health officials at the local and federal level, other state agencies, and the state’s medical community.

It was such collaboration, however, that has restricted Pedati to working from home for now.

She announced May 11 she would follow the advice of her own department and take precautions after meeting days earlier in the White House with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Aides to Trump and Pence later tested positive for COVID-19.

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“I will be following public health guidance and quarantining at home and taking my temperature and monitoring myself for symptoms twice a day,” Pedati said in the statement at the time. “I will be working from my home and continuing to fulfill my duties as state epidemiologist and medical director. If it were to be necessary for me to have an in-person meeting or appearance, I will continue to follow public health guidance for essential workers.”

Similarly, Reynolds also placed herself on a “modified” quarantine that limits interactions until later this week.

Asked for her message to Iowans during the pandemic, Pedati said while it may sound simplistic, her goal is to determine how best to protect and improve the public’s health.

“I just want to reiterate my commitment and certainly the department’s committed to doing everything we possibly can to stop the spread of this illness and keep everybody as save and healthy as we can,” Pedati said. “And I appreciate this has been an unprecedented and challenging time for everybody who has been affected in different ways.”

Dr. Caitlin Pedati

Title: medical director, state epidemiologist for Iowa Department of Public Health

Age: 34

Hometown: Born in New Jersey, grew up in northern Virginia

Education: Bishop O’Connell High School (Arlington, Va.); Georgetown University (undergraduate); George Washington University (medical school)

Resides: Norwalk

Family: single

Profession experience: board certified and licensed general pediatrician; pediatric residency at Children’s National Hospital (Washington, D.C.); Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (Lincoln, Neb.); medical epidemiologist for Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (Lincoln, Neb.)

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.