After Dr. Michael Roberts finished his two-year stint as chief of staff at East Alabama Health, I wondered whether any hospital chief of staff in the history of Lee County has ever been as widely quoted in the media over as long a period of time as Roberts.
I just searched Roberts’ name on oanow.com, the Opelika-Auburn News website, and the answer has got to be no.
After he assumed the chief of staff role in October of 2019, Roberts said this: “We have an amazing group of physicians here at EAMC, who are passionate about medicine and seek to provide the highest-quality care to their patients. I am honored to have the opportunity to serve this medical staff in this role.”
Every new chief of staff says things like this and then goes into the hospital and quietly gets to work, and maybe we hear from him or her two years later when the torch is passed to the next person.
That appeared to be the case with Roberts until early April of 2020, when the pandemic was spreading and our readers needed answers. Cue Roberts, who along with Dr. Ricardo Maldonado, East Alabama Medical Center’s infectious disease specialist, emerged as the hospital’s spokesman for explaining important information about the virus.
He was the right person for the job, and kudos to hospital leadership and John Atkinson, the hospital’s director of public relations and marketing, for making him so accessible.
About six months after his appointment to chief of staff at EAMC, the public heard from Roberts again, in early April, as COVID-19 patients were climbing to 60 at EAMC. For the remainder of his tenure, he would be a consistent voice in the community. In many ways, he was a prophet shouldering the burden of telling the masses the truth about things they didn’t want to hear.
“Social distancing is the No. 1 denominator,” Roberts said on April 3, 2020. “If we do a poor job of that—50 percent or less—then we’re in a situation where our hospital simply cannot handle the influx of ICU patients we will see or the number of ventilators we will need, and many people will die as a result. This includes even those without COVID-19 because we simply will not have the staff and equipment to keep up.”
In June 2020, Roberts issued this warning to the public: “There’s a sense that it has gone away, but it has not.”
Later that month, Roberts was reminding people about masks: “When I wear a face covering in public, it says that I care enough about you to protect you from a virus that I may not even know I am carrying. Your mask says the same thing to me.”
During a City of Auburn Council meeting, when Councilman Kelley Griswold asked about an internet rumor that masks can cause carbon dioxide poisoning, Roberts called it “nonsense.” “Our surgical staff wears masks all day,” he said. “… It could affect you — maybe — if you go out and run a marathon.”
In December 2020, Roberts and Maldonado, as well as other hospital staff, received the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. “It feels like maybe there’s hope,” Roberts said. “Maybe we can stop doing all this, going to room after room seeing people struggling to breathe, watching people take their last breath, sometimes not with any family around them because their family is sick.”
But he also had a warning as families headed into the holiday season: “It’s not the time to stop doing the things we know and that we’ve already put into place to try to help limit the spread of COVID-19.”
After Christmas and in the middle of a third peak, Roberts filmed a video message expressing his concern for “the way things are going.” “We’re so exhausted from watching people struggling to breathe and watching people die from this horrible disease,” he said.
In April of this year, with the vaccine available to the public and local cases dropping, Roberts took a moment to look back. “You can be outside on the street on a pretty day and think that everything’s fine and really not think of all these people struggling here in the hospital,” he said. “And I think people have a hard time appreciating that about how bad it really got, just because they weren’t seeing it with their own eyes.”
In late July 2021, with the Delta variant spreading, Roberts made another video and warned of the “rapid increase in the number of cases in our community and subsequently rapid increase of hospitalizations.”
COVID hospitalizations and ventilated patients would both set pandemic records before summer was over.
In August, Roberts warned that the hospital was reaching maximum capacity because people weren’t getting vaccinated.
“Staffing appropriately at almost every position on the care team for such a sudden increase in volume is nearly impossible,” he said.
In late September, Roberts was still urging people to get vaccinated.
“I’ve learned that COVID doesn’t care how old a person is, what political affiliation they have, or where they got their information,” he said. “COVID simply looks for its next victim and people who are unvaccinated are much easier targets than those who are vaccinated.”
On Friday, as Dr. Mary Ann Shannon, another EAMC hospitalist, was assuming the role of chief of staff, local COVID hospitalizations were dropping to 33, from a pandemic high of 93 less than a month earlier.
But if we’ve learned one thing from Roberts over the past 18 months, it’s that COVID-19 isn’t over yet, and it’s certainly not over just because we want to believe it’s over.
Dimon Kendrick-Holmes is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org