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A Stanford virus expert combats the COVID-19 pandemic

Stanford epidemiologist Yvonne Maldonado has brought her deep knowledge of viral outbreaks to several key roles in the fight against COVID-19.

Earlier this year, as I started reporting for Stanford Medicine magazine on how infectious disease epidemiologist Yvonne Maldonado, MD, has led Stanford's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing jumped out at me: Maldonado loves her work.

"She's said many times, 'I've trained my whole life for this,'" her longtime research collaborator Clea Sarnquist, DrPH, told me.

Maldonado has undertaken many key roles during the pandemic, as my new profile of her explains. She has helped guide Stanford's hospitals as they cared for COVID-19 patients, while also keeping health care workers and other patients safe. She has led many aspects of the university's COVID-19 research program. She has coordinated with infection control leaders across the nation. And she has been the university's main scientific spokesperson for the media.

To perform all those jobs, she's drawn on her decades of experience fighting other viral outbreaks, including HIV, polio, measles and Ebola.

No matter which virus she's telling you about, Maldonado can keep you on the edge of your seat. (You'll see this in the accompanying video and podcast interview.)

In one of our interviews for the story, the conversation took a riveting detour into how, in the mid-1980s, she was sent by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's epidemic intelligence service to investigate a cluster of malaria cases in San Diego.

"So I packed a bag," Maldonado told me, "and said to my husband -- we had been married a couple of weeks -- 'I don't know when I'll be back.'"

She ended up identifying the source of the largest U.S. malaria outbreak since the 1950s.

Yvonne Maldonado, MD, on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, after months of 14-18 hour work days, Maldonado remains motivated and hopeful about our ability to get a grip on COVID-19. Among the things keeping her going are her interactions with participants in a clinical trial she's running of a medication for mild COVID-19 illness.

"I really love seeing patients because all the other stuff I'm doing takes a back seat and I can just focus on one person," Maldonado told me for the story, saying it reminds her of working at a clinic in Zimbabwe where pregnant women were tested and could be treated for HIV. "I really think it helps ground me. It's the kind of thing that makes me really understand the meaning of what I'm doing."

Image by Timothy Archibald

Read more from Stanford Medicine magazine's special report on COVID-19 here.

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