BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) – When Dr. Michael Saag left his house after spending three weeks in isolation, he said it felt, “surreal.”
“It was a very unreal moment,” said Dr. Saag, Director of the Center for AIDS Research at UAB and Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases.
Dr. Saag was infected with COVID-19 in March and spent two weeks sick with symptoms he described as “relentless.” He was able to return to work last Monday and is now working with patients infected with the coronavirus.
“Last Friday, we opened up a clinic solely for COVID-19 patient. I call it the 19 COVID clinic, and the 19 COVID Clinic’s goal is to take individuals who are sick with the infection from the coronavirus, and give them a place to go other than the ER,” explained Dr. Saag. “So, those people who are probably not quite sick enough at the hospital but not comfortable staying at home, can come in and be evaluated and will be seen by me or one of my colleagues.”
He added, “My having had the infection personally makes me a much better provider for those who have COVID.”
Dr. Saag said he knows exactly what symptoms to look for and can empathize with what his patients are feeling. He said sharing his story with patients also gives them hope.
“We don’t want to give unrealistic hope of course at any time, but when there is an understanding of how a disease process goes, we can assess how that individual is doing, put it into where they fit on the spectrum and then interpret that for the patient and in a lot of cases there is a lot of hope in this disease,” explained Dr. Saag. “Obviously some people end up having a deteriorating condition and have to go to the hospital, but for a majority of people, they can weather this out and by coming to the clinic, and talking to us, we can put into perspective where they are in the spectrum.”
Outside of the clinic, Dr. Saag is continuing to study this pandemic and contributing to research by donating his blood.
“I already got an answer back that I have very high tides of antibodies to all the major proteins of the virus. That’s good news, and this week they’re going to be testing it for what’s called neutralizing antibodies which answers the question, ‘OK you’ve got antibody, but does it protect? Does it prevent the virus from infecting cells?’”
He continued, “My having neutralizing antibodies would be a great sign but we would have to look at this in a number of other people. My personal guess is that most everyone who has been infected will have high tide or neutralizing antibodies and that will give us a big green light for a vaccine.”
Most experts believe a vaccine is at least a year away and while social distancing under current measures isn’t sustainable long-term, Dr. Saag said it’s crucial to continue as long as possible. When restrictions are lifted, Dr. Saag said there must be a plan to prevent a second rapid increase of infections.
“The big question we get a lot is, ‘When can these restrictions be lifted, and we can get rid of the stay-at-home and get back to life as we used to know it?’ That’s the wrong question. The question isn’t when, the question is how and how means, ‘Do we do case contract tracing?’ Yes. We should treat this just like tuberculous,” said Dr. Saag.
“Do we do massive screening of the population to see who has antibody and who was previous infected? Absolutely… If we simply lift restrictions on the question of when, in my opinion, there’s no question we head for a second spike. It’s like we did nothing from March till whenever these were lifted if there is no plan.”