The 30-Year Warning
A med school professor has been talking pandemic preparedness for decades

By Louise Sloan '88 / June–August 2020
May 25th, 2020
photo of Prof Mermel's door

“In the first few days of January, I told my now 30-year-old son that there was going to be a pandemic,” says Leonard A. Mermel, a professor at Warren Alpert Medical School and medical director of the Department of Epidemiology and Infection Control at Rhode Island Hospital. “He said ‘Oh Dad, you’ve been talking about pandemics since we were kids and now you’re telling me it’s really going to happen?’ So, here we are. It is surreal.” 

Mermel has been invited to speak twice over the years to the National Academy of Medicine on the topic of hospital preparedness for a pandemic due to a respiratory viral pathogen. A chart comparing the mortality rates of the 1918 flu pandemic in various American cities has been hanging on Mermel’s office door for so long he stopped really seeing it. But it shows that cities like St. Louis, which quickly enforced social distancing, fared better than those slower to respond. “It reaffirms basic public health interventions for epidemics and pandemics,” Mermel told the Providence Journal in March. 

The BAM caught up with Mermel in early April. “I’ve been working 12- to 14-hour days for over two months and eating one meal a day most days just trying to do everything humanly possible to keep our staff, patients, and visitors out of harm’s way,” he said. “My father was a Holocaust survivor and I think about him each and every day. I cannot compare the challenges I now face with those of my father, but he is my inspiration.”  

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June–August 2020