Dr. Matt Willis holds the dubious distinction of being one of the only California public health officers known to have come down with COVID-19.
He may also be the state’s only public health officer to have developed antibodies to the coronavirus. That potentially puts him in the category of “super-worker” — someone who can operate freely with little risk of re-infection — except that much remains unknown about developing immunity to the virus.
His unique status is not one that Willis expected when he fell ill in March, just as he was leading his county’s response to the pandemic.
“I was sure when I got the disease that in a few months, everyone was going to get it,” he said. “I was certain my story was going to be boring. Just one of many. That hasn’t really happened.”
In an interview Tuesday at the Marin County Emergency Operations Center in San Rafael, Willis, 54, said he thinks he was infected at a joint Bay Area county news conference on March 16 in Santa Clara — “back in the days when we were telling people not to wear masks.”
Even though he was socially distanced from the five other Bay Area county public health officers — as they announced some of the nation’s earliest and most stringent shelter-in-place orders — they were in an enclosed space, in front of a jostling throng of unmasked reporters, photographers and videographers.
“It feels like a lifetime ago,” he said, cringing at his memory of the virally unaware behavior that took place that day — behavior that now seems foolhardy and dangerous.
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Sitting in a conference room, Willis spoke about his illness, his concerns for his community, his uncertainty about the disease and his hopes for a slow, uneventful reopening of the county where he grew up, and returned to in 2012 to raise his own family.
Willis, who once raced with the U.S. National Cycling Team, has worked around the nation as an infectious disease expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and with the Navajo nation.
His biggest concern now: “More than 95% of the public is still susceptible.”
Testing — both RNA and antibody — indicates that roughly 1% of the population, “maybe 5%” has been infected, he said. That means the disease has barely yet made an imprint on his community.
“We’re really still near the beginning of this,” he said.
One of the more baffling aspects about the disease, he said, comes from his own family’s experience with it.
Willis is married with three children, ages 10, 16 and 20.
When Willis started feeling ill, on March 20, he was able to schedule a test the following day at one of Marin County’s first drive-through testing clinics.
“I was kind of like a secret shopper,” he said, rolling into the clinic to get swabbed and to see how it was functioning.
A day later he got the news: He had tested positive. Willis, the public health officer, had to let the public know. He delivered a video message that night from home describing his situation.
Within days his 20-year-old daughter got the disease. And then his 16-year-old son. But his wife, who is also a physician, and his 10-year-old son never became infected — despite being in the same house.
Willis said that once each of them developed symptoms, they self-quarantined in separate rooms. But before that, while he and his two infected children were asymptomatic, they were presumably shedding virus and exposing others.
Especially his wife, who continued to care for them all. He said she’s now been tested three times for the virus, and at least once for the antibodies. All her test results have been negative.
Willis has also had two antibody tests, both of which were positive.
“People now use my serum as a way of validating their tests,” he said.
Then there’s the range of symptoms his family experienced. Willis’ 16-year-old son had two days of a high fever, during which he mostly slept.
His 20-year-old daughter had a longer bout, with the classic respiratory symptoms of cough and shortness of breath, as well as fever.
Willis, who had the worst case — he was out of commission for nearly three weeks — also had the “most random and diverse” symptoms, he said.
Those included fever, cough, shortness of breath, low oxygen levels, headache, ringing ears, nausea, diarrhea, numbness in his hands and his toes turning purple — symptoms that ricocheted around his body.
“It seemed to bounce around different systems. Attacking different organs,” he said.
Most consistent, he said, was respiratory distress along with general fatigue, “like that truck-ran-over-you kind of feeling. Literally getting up to go to the bathroom was like, ‘Is it worth it?’”
The variation that occurred within his own household suggests to Willis that there is still much unknown. It will be critical for scientists, physicians and drug-makers to study the disease and its impact on different people, he said, in order to figure out its sometimes seemingly arbitrary behavior.
He also said he feels fortunate to live in a community that is also seeking answers to these questions — and turning to scientists and physicians for information.
“There’s a healthy respect for science in Marin County,” he said.
Which isn’t to say everyone is happy with the way he is doing his job. He said he gets a lot of feedback from the county’s residents complaining that he’s opening things up too quickly, or too slowly, and that he’s being too protective, or not enough.
Dennis Rodoni, a member of Marin County’s Board of Supervisors, had only praise for Willis’ performance in flattening the curve while “balancing the risk of the reopening of our economy at the appropriate time.”
Willis has secured for the county 1,000 pulse oximeters, devices that measure blood oxygen levels, so that people who get the disease can monitor themselves from home. Those will be included in home-kits that the county has prepared for COVID-19 patients, which also include a thermometer, sanitizer and masks.
He said his experience with the disease was humbling, and made clear the challenges that others will face when they get the disease.
“I couldn’t get out of bed. I could barely function,” he said, underscoring the privileges he was afforded by being married, having space in the house to quarantine, and being part of a network of doctors who helped him. “I can’t imagine doing it while trying to work, or caring for small children, alone.”
Asked if he now feels invincible, because he’s had the virus and carries the antibodies, he said no. But he is somewhat comforted to know that when he has a runny nose, it’s probably just allergies.
He said there’s still too little information to know whether he’s actually protected from the disease, or how long any immunity might last. Therefore, he behaves as he’d want all of his neighbors to behave: He wears a mask, he limits his time away from home to essential travel and is vigilant about maintaining a healthy distance from others.
He also has lingering effects from the disease: He gets winded easily, and his hands get splotchy areas when he’s been sitting still for a time.
“That is totally new. I never had that before,” he said, looking down at his hands.
He said the experience of being a public health officer, during this time, has its similarities to those he endured as a professional cyclist.
It was through cycling, he said, that he learned about “stamina, the value of teamwork, working through hard patches and coming out the other side.”