The Doc Leading San Diego County's 'Decisive' COVID-19 Response

Doug Brunk

April 02, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center.

SAN DIEGO — On the days family physician Nick Yphantides, MD, announces updates on the COVID-19 epidemic to San Diego County residents, he can't help but think about his late father.

In June of 2009, 75-year-old George Yphantides, a Steinway-trained piano technician who lived in Escondido, Calif., became the third person in the United States to die from complications of the pandemic H1N1 swine flu — just days before a vaccine became available.

Dr Nick Yphantides

"I loved my dad," Dr. Yphantides, who has been San Diego County's Chief Medical Officer since the year of his father's death, said in an interview. "So, when you take a step back and take into consideration my sense of purpose in serving the 3.3 million residents of San Diego County, my passion based on my personal Christian faith, and my activation in terms of what happened to my dad, I have such a storm of internal sense of urgency right now."

San Diego County and public health officials got experience with COVID-19 in advance of the country's widely documented cases of community-based transmission. Around 9 pm on Jan. 31, 2020 — the Friday of Super Bowl weekend — Dr. Yphantides answered a phone call from Eric C. McDonald, MD, the county's medical director of epidemiology.

Dr. McDonald informed him that in a few days, a plane full of American citizens traveling from Wuhan, China, would be landing at Marine Corp Air Station Miramar in San Diego for a 2-week quarantine and that the task of providing medical support to any affected individuals fell on county officials.

"I will never forget that phone call," he said. "We did have two positive cases. What we experienced with those evacuees was amazing surge preparation, and without exaggeration, I have worked 18-20 hours a day since that day."

Fast forward to March 31, 2020, the county's confirmed COVID-19 caseload had grown to 734, up 131 from the day before. As of the final day of March, nine people have died, with an age range between 25 and 87 years. Of confirmed cases, 61% are between the ages of 20 and 49, 43% are female, 19% have required hospitalization, 7% have required admission to intensive care, and the mortality rate has been 1.2%. Data currently show optimal proactive hospital capacity.

In the opinion of Dr. Yphantides, the 734 COVID-19 cases represent a tip of the iceberg. "How big is that iceberg? I can't tell you yet," he said.

Instead of being fearful or apprehensive about this uncertainty, Dr. Yphantides said he is "energized."

"I see this as the Super Bowl of public health," he exclaimed.

At least part of Dr. Yphantides' vigor might be explained by his pride in his team of professionals who have been helping him respond to the surge of COVID-19 cases.

As the county's CMO, Dr. Yphantides serves as the liaison for the entire Emergency Medical System, the entire local health care delivery system, the entire physician and medical society network, the payor system, and the proportion of the area population using Medi-Cal.

Dr. Yphantides, who attended medical school at the University of California, San Diego, said that, compared with other regions of the country, San Diego County has made "tremendous progress" in overcoming many chronic lifestyle illnesses. For example, cardiovascular disease is no longer the number one cause of death in the county; it's bookended by cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

"In the context of the COVID-19 response, [the county's health care team established] an entire incident command system in our emergency operations center. Our emergency operations center is activated to the top level," he said.

Dr. Yphantides shares public communication efforts with Dr. McDonald and Wilma J. Wooten, MD, the county's public health officer. The San Diego County CMO also engages with policymakers, including the board of supervisors, local mayors, state legislators, and national legislators.

"Because of the relational trust capital that I have in this community, I get pulled into unexpected rooms of discussion," he said. This included meeting with top executives from the San Diego Padres in early March, putting them on notice that the 2020 Major League Baseball season would likely be postponed. (This was officially announced on March 16.)

"We have made some decisions that have devastated some people economically. Talk about flipping the switch. We are living and making history every day. It is unbelievable," he said.

"San Diego is a more aged population compared to many other parts of the country. ... [Part] of the reason why I'm so frantically doing everything I can to prepare, to batten down the hatches, and to optimize our health care delivery system is because we have a population that collectively is more at risk [for more serious complications from COVID-19]. A lot of what drives me is advocacy," Dr. Yphantides noted.

A Colleague's Perspective

Kristi L. Koenig, MD, medical director of emergency medical services for the County of San Diego, characterized Dr. Yphantides' management style as collaborative. "Under his leadership, we have the perspective of 'just focus on patient care, get it done, be creative, work together as a team,' " said Dr. Koenig, who coedited the textbook, "Koenig and Schultz's Disaster Medicine: Comprehensive Principles and Practices" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). "He's decisive and he's responsive. You don't have to wait a long time to get a decision, which is very important right now because this is so fast moving."

Dr. Koenig, who has worked with Dr. Yphantides for 3 years, said that she routinely feeds him information that might help the team navigate its response to COVID-19. "For example, if I see an idea for how to get more [personal protective equipment] and feed it to him, he might have a contact somewhere in a factory that could make the PPE," she said. "We work together by my reminding him to keep it within the incident command system structure, so that we can coordinate all the resources and not duplicate efforts."

He uses his personal connections in a way to implement ideas that are beneficial to the overall goal of decreasing morbidity and mortality," Dr. Koenig added.

Predictions for San Diego County

Dr. Yphantides said he considers San Diego to still be in the calm before the storm and that he is working hard to "board up his community." The county CMO is also trying to prepare the health care delivery system to optimize its capacity, of doing interventions with hopes of lowering the curve and enhancing the capacity, he said.

When the storm hits, "it's going be brutal, because we're going to lose life," Dr. Yphantides said.

"I am praying that maybe by some of our efforts, instead of a Category 5 storm, it'll be a Category 3 storm," he remarked.

The Future of Health Care

Dr. Yphantides views the COVID-19 pandemic as "an absolute game-changer" in terms of what the future of health care delivery will look like in the United States. "Whether the right word is the 'Amazonification' of health care, or the 'Uberization' of health care, I don't know, but the essence of how we deliver care is radically being transformed literally before our eyes," he said. "I would encourage my colleagues to embrace that" and take care of their people by doing whatever it takes under this unprecedented paradigm.

Meanwhile, Dr. Yphantides braces for a potential surge of COVID-19 cases in San Diego County in the coming weeks. He honors the memory of his dad, and he expresses thanks for his mom, who cares for his two teenaged daughters while he helps steward the region's response to the pandemic.

"Without my mom I could not function in the way that I'm currently functioning," he said. "So, when you add all of those factors up, and wrap it with a bowtie of sincere love and passion for my community, there's a fire that's burning inside of me right now."

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