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Q + A: William Schaffner, MD

Posted by Jill Clendening on Friday, March 19, 2021 in Q+A, Spring 2021 .

Photo by Erin O. Smith

William Schaffner, MD, professor of Preventive Medicine in the Department of Health Policy and professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, is the reassuring face and voice of reliable, relatable and real-time facts about infectious diseases. Over the past year he has conducted thousands of media interviews about COVID-19.

Q. How did you become the national — and even international — voice of note on infectious diseases, and especially now, this novel coronavirus?

My association with the media began while I was fulfilling my draft obligation as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer with the CDC. Assigned to investigate communicable diseases at the state health department in Rhode Island, I answered media questions about outbreaks of influenza, salmonella and the like. My next notable acquaintance with the media came with the appearance of AIDS. As the Vanderbilt faculty member most closely associated with the CDC, I was privy to the latest public health information, so reporters were directed to me. With the addition of a small broadcast studio on Vanderbilt’s campus, it became much more convenient to accept invitations to go on camera. When COVID exploded on the scene, Vanderbilt was richly endowed with faculty experts in diverse aspects of the problem: basic immunology, diagnostic testing, clinical management, vaccine and therapeutic research, predictive modeling, public health policy and more. All contribute to the public face of our institution, and I am glad to participate.

Q. How often are you fielding media interviews about COVID-19?

The intensity of the media’s interest in COVID-19 is constant. Since the pandemic’s onset, I’ve interviewed with TV and print reporters from 27 countries including England, France, Germany, Denmark, Turkey, India, Singapore, Russia and China. Interviews can start early in the morning and extend well into evening. Weekends are not off limits and can allow extended conversations when reporters wish to explore an issue in greater depth.

Q. How do you handle the pressure of being one of the national faces and voices of COVID-19 information?

It can be intense, but providing solid information is important and can even be fun. You clearly have to keep up with all the latest developments, and sometimes reporters will fill you in on breaking news that you haven’t heard yet. The avalanche of new information is developing “fast and furious” — much more so than any other communicable disease event I can remember.

Q. Do you have any rules you follow for media interviews?

Yes, I do:

  • Avoid politics.
  • Be conversational and use a touch of humor occasionally.
  • Locals come first. I always make time for reporters from the Tennessean newspaper and from Nashville’s television stations. This helps VUMC be open and responsive to our community. We live here, and they are our neighbors.