Dr. Travis Gayles Looks Back at Pandemic Response: ‘This Is What We Are Trained For’

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s most visible point person for all things coronavirus, begins his days in a meeting that can start as early as 7:30 a.m. For the next 10 hours, he works his way through meetings, phone calls and emails with the public and the county’s team of first responders.

Gayles then spends the rest of the evening reading updates on COVID-19, particularly as they pertain to Maryland and catching up on emails. “Let’s just say my comp time – that I am not going to be able to use – is quite bloated at this time,” he said with a grin.

Still, regardless of how many hours he puts in, Montgomery County’s health officer and chief of public health since September of 2017, makes sure he finds time to stay physically fit and active. That could mean playing in one of several tennis leagues – a game he has been playing for almost 30 years – lifting weights, spinning or running.

“I was taught something early on growing up. In our efforts to take care of others, we can’t forget to take care of ourselves,” Gayles said.

It has been 10 months since the first three cases of COVID-19 entered Montgomery County. Since that time, he has learned a lot, and not just about the virus. He has seen the ugly side of people, especially those who have sent him many “derogatory and racist” emails, several that he has forwarded to the police. He called the messages “troubling.”

Some of those messages question his education and knowledge, despite Gayles’ bachelor’s degree in public policy studies and African American Studies at Duke University and his PhD in community health and a medical degree from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He went on to complete his residency in pediatrics at Northwestern University in Chicago and earned a National Institutes of Health fellowship in academic pediatrics.

To this day, he continues to receive hate mail, although it has “toned down,” he said. The continuing abuse is the reason he chose not to talk about anything personal, even his age or the town in which he resides.

Numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths are rising again, but Gayles remains as focused as ever on the job at hand.

He spoke with MyMCM about how he and other county leaders responded to the pandemic in the early stages.

While his job mainly is one of guidance, most specifically to County Executive Marc Elrich and members of the county council, he also deals with state officials and those who emphatically believe businesses, schools and residents must be shuttered as well as those who equally – emphatically want the county opened up right away.

Elrich is appreciative. “Dr. Gayles and his team have been invaluable to the county. They have been focused on making decisions that have lessened the impact of Covid-19 and done it in the face of truly ugly personal attacks. People who are working tirelessly to keep us safe deserve our respect and support, and it’s been a great experience to work with him and his team.”

Each day, Gayles carries the burden of making what he believes are the best health decisions for the residents of Montgomery County while being acutely aware that businesses are closing, people are losing their jobs and the lines for free food are growing. He also takes to heart the more than  41,172 residents have contracted COVID-19 and the 1,012 have died from it as of Dec. 18.

But when asked if he would take the job now, knowing all that has happened, Gayles immediately replies, “Certainly,” adding, “This is what we are trained for. This is what we went to school for. This is what we work for.”

Convincing people to get the vaccine is an important next step, he said, sheepishly acknowledging that members of his family have said, “‘We are waiting for you to get it and see how things go.’”

He looks forward to the day when coronavirus has been tackled and he can travel. He has some trips planned out already. Meanwhile, he will keep watching the Great British Baking Show, which he said he’s become hooked on. However, he quickly added, he does not cook any of the delicious foods he views. “That’s still to be determined.”

Regardless of the virus’ status, Gayles will continue to have plenty to do. As he explained, there’s “a host of other public health concerns” that will always require his attention including diabetes and prenatal and early childhood care.

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