COVID-19 Hero: Joseph Gastaldo Teaches the Public

Steve Wartenberg
Columbus Monthly

The news about a new and deadly coronavirus first trickled out of China in November, setting off alarm bells for infectious disease experts around the world. “I said, ‘Uh-oh, this sounds like another SARS or MERS,’” says Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, OhioHealth’s system medical director for infectious diseases.

Since then, Gastaldo has been a calm and constant source of information and science in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, dispensing facts in easy-to-digest sound bites and dispelling falsehoods on multiple platforms within OhioHealth’s massive health care network and to tens of thousands more across Ohio through media appearances.

“The leadership at OhioHealth said, ‘Joe, we want you to be the face of OhioHealth,’” Gastaldo says. “There were days I did six media events: live TV, recorded TV, some radio. There was just a huge need for knowledge the public needed to hear, and it was more credible coming from a doctor.”

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Within OhioHealth, Gastaldo was even more in demand as COVID-19 began to spread, and questions about testing, treatment, social distancing, antibodies and asymptomatic transmissions multiplied as quickly as the virus. Gastaldo was up to the task, armed with knowledge gleaned from talking to infectious disease colleagues at OhioHealth, all over Columbus and beyond, as well as poring through and digesting reports from medical journals, advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and data gathered at OhioHealth.

Gastaldo’s idea of a relaxing break is to wash the car—while listening to a COVID-19 podcast hosted by an infectious disease expert. “I hate to say he’s a workaholic, but …” says Jason Ninneman, Gastaldo’s longtime partner. “He’s always been so dedicated to his job, and these last few months everything is changing day-to-day, and every waking minute he’s listening to podcasts, reading, staying up to date. It’s hard to turn him off.”

Gastaldo is up at 4:30 every morning, studying the new COVID-19 updates. “I can get him to go for a run at 5:30 every morning, and then it’s off to the hospital,” Ninneman says.

At the hospital, Gastaldo’s days are nonstop meetings and media events. “I’m involved with a lot of teams,” he explains of his leadership role. The lab testing team meets every day to go over the latest developments; the pharmacology team met every day at first but is down to three meetings a week. Gastaldo hosts regular video meetings for OhioHealth’s cardiologists, critical care docs, primary care physicians and OB-GYNs, to name some of his regular group get-togethers. “The biggest meeting was with about 700 of our cardiologists,” Gastaldo says, adding that he has at least seven different meeting apps on his smartphone and uses all of them.

One result of all these meetings is new relationships with hundreds of OhioHealth colleagues he’d never met before. “Everyone has my cell number,” he says. “I’m really humbled that they feel comfortable reaching out to me like that, and it’s something that’s given me a lot of personal and professional satisfaction.”

Gastaldo’s fascination with infectious diseases began in medical school. He was attracted to the detective-like qualities of this field of medicine. “We have to think a lot. We put pieces of information together that are sometimes very confusing,” Gastaldo says, adding that he was also drawn to the interaction with patients that’s a big part of this specialty. “You’re so involved in talking to patients and have to ask a lot of questions in a humble, accepting and nonjudgmental way.”

Until COVID-19, some of the biggest issues for infectious disease doctors were HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and drug-resistant “superbugs” (strains of viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi). And then the latest coronavirus landed. The initial tests were “clunky,” Gastaldo says, and often didn’t work, leading to confusion. “For this virus, the test doesn’t come back negative or positive, like it does for other viruses,” he says. “It comes back either detected or undetected.”

In other words, experts around the world are learning more and more about COVID-19 on a daily basis. What was thought to be true yesterday may not be true today. And something else may come into play tomorrow. And the day after. “I’m a man of science, and I do not have a political agenda,” Gastaldo says. “I present the facts as best I can and am always sensitive to the fact that some of the science is not as fully vetted as it has been vetted in the past or as well as we would like.”


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