Prayer from the Front Lines of Coronavirus Research

Hear from a researcher on the front lines of coronavirus research and pray along with him for the work he and his colleagues are doing during this pandemic.
In this episode…
  • William A. Petri, Jr., M.D., Ph.D. is Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases & International Health at the University of Virginia. He is also Vice Chair of the Department of Medicine and practices internal medicine and the subspecialty of infectious diseases. At UVA he directs the NIH Training Programs in Infectious Diseases and in Biothreats as well as a summer research program for underrepresented minority medical students.

  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

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The coronavirus and its economic, social, and mortal fallout are obviously dominating the news and changing the way many of us are ordering our lives for the next few weeks. For our first episode back, we welcome Dr. William Petri, a UVA public health researcher, to share with us what this outbreak looks like to a Christian who works in public health and lead us in prayer for his colleagues as they work on responding to this pandemic.

We’re grateful that Dr. Petri took time off of literally working on a coronavirus vaccine to talk with us on short notice, and hope that this offers something instructional, helpful or comforting to you.

Our podcast will be back next week, but in the mean time, follow us on Facebook for ongoing updates, prayer prompts and reflection material related to the COVID-19 response.

A lightly edited transcript of a portion of the episode follows:

Rick: Our guest is Dr. William Petri, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and international health at the University of Virginia. He’s also vice chair of the department of medicine there, and he practices internal medicine and the subspecialty of infectious diseases. He also directs UVA’s NIH training programs in infectious diseases and bio threats as well as a summer research program for underrepresented minority medical students.

He’s a Christian who is simultaneously working on the front lines of responding to the coronavirus and training the next generation of public health professionals as they learn how to respond to moments of crisis like this one.

This interview was recorded on Thursday afternoon and this episode is coming out during the day on Friday. This story is developing really quickly, and if things have changed by the time you’re listening to this, don’t be shocked.

Dr. Petri: Things have changed dramatically in the last couple of weeks and, as as you know, there’s a tenfold increase the number of cases outside of China. China yesterday had 50 cases of coronavirus. Outside of China, there were 5,000 new cases of COVID-19 infection. That’s the really concerning thing. The genie is out of the bottle. Our Pandora’s box is open—it’s so widespread.

The reason that the epidemic is stopping in China is for the same things that were done for SARS in China 18 years ago, which is that you identify someone with the COVID-19 disease and you isolate them. Then you identify each person that that patient was in contact with during the period of time that they were infectious—which is from two days before they have the illness up to three weeks after they are ill—and you and you put in quarantine everyone who’s contacted that patient.

That’s what was done with SARS. With SARS they were on top of it faster.

What happened with COVID-19 is that enough time passed that there were so many cases and so many contacts that you can no longer do this contact tracing. And so what worked really well for SARS couldn’t be done for COVID-19.

Once you can no longer do identifying cases, isolating cases in quarantine, then you have to do the social isolation techniques, which are also effective. They’re not as effective as being able to do the contact tracing. Shutting down of transportation, preventing groups of more than 25 people—like what’s going on at UVA—from gathering. The opportunity in the US to control this simply by identifying the cases and isolating the contacts has been lost.

Rick: You mentioned that you could carry the SARS virus for two days before you became symptomatic. Two days is not that difficult, as far as contact tracing would go. How long can you carry the coronavirus before you start developing or displaying symptoms of COVID-19?

Dr. Petri: On average, five to six days. The extreme is 14 days—99% of people will develop symptoms within 14 days. That’s why 14 days is the amount of time that you have to quarantine someone who has been in contact with a COVID-19 patient.

Rick: I can’t imagine needing to go back and figure out everyone I’ve made physical contact with for the last two weeks. Everyone I’ve shaken hands with?

Dr. Petri: That’s why we’re now having to do things like close mass gatherings and athletic events—I was supposed to run a marathon on Sunday! All of this is being done with the idea that we’re going to slow down the epidemic. We’re not going to stop the epidemic in the US, but if we can slow it down just a little bit, then there’s some chance that our healthcare facilities won’t be overwhelmed.

I was talking to my wife about it last night, and she asked, “So why don’t we just let it run its course? It’s too late to stop it. Why not just let it happen? Have it over with?”

The problem with that is overwhelming the healthcare facilities, like we’re seeing in Italy now. The thing that concerns me is that if you’re young, you’re at much less risk of having a severe case of COVID-19. What worries me about that, is that if young people don’t take the precautions to prevent the infection, they may do okay with it, but then they may give it to their grandparent, who won’t do well with it. And so I think it’s a good time to be kind to one another and realize the impact you’re having on other people around you.

Rick: How has your experience working in public health changed your faith?

Dr. Petri: Well, one thing is gratitude that I can understand just how beautifully we’re created as human beings. The way the immune system works to protect you against an infectious disease is incredibly intricate and beautiful. It’s a wonderful privilege to be a scientist and be a Christian. Every day there’s something that’s revealed to me about how wonderfully we were created.

The other thing about public health and science is that you’re always working with other people, and I’m working quite often in a supervisory role where I’m the professor and I’m teaching a fellow or a graduate student. That’s very, very important for the field because my lifespan as a public health person is limited. A lot of what’s going to go [on in the field] happens through my students. That’s a wonderful part of this. Whenever we discover something or make some advance, it’s never me personally. It’s part of a team.

In my position, the only approach to working with someone else is to give them unconditional love. That’s what was given to me by Christ, dying on the cross for me. If you’re giving someone unconditional love, it is so freeing. If this person says something that irritates you, that slight doesn’t matter because this is all about, “What can I contribute for this person?”

Rick: A lot of events are being canceled. A lot of workers are being encouraged to work from home. A lot of other people are probably having their hours cut, potentially even being laid off. All as a result of downstream effects of this pandemic.

And as you said, there’s a great risk that our hospitals and our healthcare institutions could potentially end up being overrun. Is there anything we can do to  help support the people who are doing the front lines of the health care work here?

Dr. Petri: There’s a fair amount you can do as an individual to try to mitigate the epidemic. First of all, there’s common sense things: Washing your hands frequently. Trying not to touch inanimate surfaces when you’re out in public—the grocery cart, the doorknob. Not touching your eyes or your nose or your mouth because that’s how you give yourself this virus.

There’s social distancing: Don’t go to a large event like a marathon or something, because of the potential that you’ll become infected and then introduce that infection to someone else. When you greet someone, don’t touch them—bump elbows or something until we’re through this epidemic. It sounds like trivial things, but those are the sort of things that individuals can do that will slow the spread of this coronavirus. If we can just slow it down a little bit, then we have a chance, that our hospitals won’t be overwhelmed to the point that we’re having to ration health care.

With my scientific friends who are Christians, we are praying for a miraculous end to this epidemic.

A scientific view of this is that you can see the cat’s out of the bag, and this is going to be absolutely terrible in April. But we can pray for a miracle and see God’s hands in stopping this pandemic.

Rick: That’s a wonderful reminder that we actually have permission to pray bold prayers, and it’s good to hear what you and some of the other friends you have in the medical and scientific community are praying for. What else would you recommend that we pray for, as someone who is in the community of people tasked with understanding these kinds of things best? What should the rest of your brothers and sisters be praying for in the next few weeks?

Dr. Petri: The thing that’s closest to home for me is intellectual insight into how the devil, essentially, made this virus, and how can we combat it by using our immune systems. How can we best design a vaccine to prevent this? Insights into how the virus works so that we can develop antiviral drugs.

That comes like really close to home. It’s one of the things that I’m working on—a vaccine to try to prevent this. That’s not going to be useful for this year, but it could be for subsequent years.

I think you’re right also with your point about all the people who are being terribly affected by the response to this—people who are working in restaurants, at athletic arenas who are losing their jobs. People who are losing their retirement incomes with the stock prices. There are a lot of people who are being, terribly affected even by the response to this.

And then praying for the families who have lost a family member from this, and the thousands of people that are hospitalized right now.

Lastly, pray for a miraculous end to the epidemic. Pray that no one could understand why it happened—they’ll just say, “Wow, isn’t that wonderful? It stopped. We don’t know why it did.”

Listen to the episode for the complete interview and prayer points.

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