Alex Jahangir is still a practicing orthopedic surgeon, as he always was, except now he gets recognized in public almost every day. As the former head of Mayor John Cooper’s COVID-19 task force, he’s a familiar face to Nashvillians. He was the one giving us COVID-19 updates on TV and via the internet throughout the city’s “Safer at Home” order and beyond.
In his new book Hot Spot: A Doctor’s Diary From the Pandemic, Jahangir gives his account, expanding on his notes with the help of Katie Seigenthaler. As the face of the city’s COVID-19 response, Jahangir details criticism he caught, including the ways in which he butted heads with the now former Metro Board of Health director Michael Caldwell, and his frustrations when politics got in the way of the city’s and state’s reactions to the pandemic.
The Post sat down with Jahangir to discuss pandemic wins and regrets, facing medical disinformation and more.
Sometimes when people write books they use pseudonyms, so why did you feel it important to use the real names, even in criticism?
I swear, I thought this was gonna be a couple of months at the most that I’d be involved. I didn’t think my young kids would remember the experience. So I just started keeping these little notes on the side of my desk. The objective of the journal was for my daughters to one day pick up the journal and read through them like, “Man, Dad did X, Y and Z.” So when the book happened, I felt that objective was still the same. At the end of the day, now not just my daughters, but anyone who picks up this book down the road can look at Nashville history and see what we all went through that one year. My daughters can look up this person’s name and a buzzword and probably find whatever reference I’m making. That was really important for me — I want people to hear the story authentically and know that I tried to be as authentic and genuine as I could about the story.
How key was the partnership with Meharry Medical College during the early response to the pandemic?
When the pandemic hit … obviously we got Vanderbilt and Ascension and HCA, but we also needed Meharry Medical College. How fortuitous for us that the leader of Meharry [James Hildreth] at this moment is somebody who’s a really solid infectious disease expert worldwide? I never make a secret of it. If you look at the trolls on the internet, you’ll find [people saying], “Why the hell is an orthopedic surgeon leading a pandemic response?” Well, I’m leading it because of the crisis component, as a trauma surgeon. I really do well in crises, but when it came to subject-matter expertise, having James Hildreth [who wrote the foreword of the book] as a close friend, ally and adviser did not hurt.
When it comes to criticism you’ve received about how you handled the pandemic, what do you think was fair and what do you think was unfair?
There’s a lot of things we could have done better. I think fair criticisms with 20/20 hindsight, and even in real time, I think our response especially to new Americans — who make up 12 percent of the city — wasn’t as good as it should have been. … I think once we recognized our missteps, we stepped up and partnered with organizations such as Siloam, [Conexión Américas] and the Egyptian community and others in the Kurdish community, and we were able to do better — but early on, that was a big mistake.
As far as criticism that I don’t think was as valid or [was] misinformed, I think the criticism around my personal role in school decisions — that’s something really fascinating to me still. I wasn’t involved in the school decision, per se. … I think it’s very easy to go back and find narratives that you want to criticize, and unfortunately, a lot of those narratives are driven by more divisive national dialogue. And so that’s disappointing, to say the least.
Health officials talk about how they cannot keep up with the spread of disinformation when it comes to the pandemic, and you had at least one person be aggressive toward you in public because of these theories. Do you feel it’s important to correct people based on what you know about COVID-19, or is it sometimes not worth it to try to change minds?
I’m a little of both. If somebody states things that I think are incorrect, I will say, “I think this and this is why, and I’m glad to share information as to why I think this if you want to see the data.” I’ve had multiple conversations over the years that resulted in somebody who thought one thing, we spoke it out, and either I or they changed their opinion.
But also, people want to believe what they want to believe because somebody told them to believe it, and they won’t think for themselves. Don’t take this as me saying it was Trump only. … You see it on the left too in certain things — even to this day of people saying you have to still lock things down or you have to always 24/7 wear masks.
I’m a professor of orthopedic surgery, medicine and health policy. I have all the street credit in the academic world. I graduated med school in 2003. I know what I know, and I’m comfortable sharing it. And if you don’t want to believe me because you think for some reason I don’t have expertise, well, I don’t know what more I can do.
Knowing what you know now, what is something you would have done differently?
We had our “Safer at Home” order, and then we had the things like, “If in two weeks we have decreasing case counts below this number, then we’re gonna do this thing next” — sequential steps. In hindsight that was probably not the greatest way to turn the dial. There probably should have been a more sensitive and transparent metric rather than hard case-count numbers and two-week trends. … It was a little choppy, to say the least. I still believe the reason we did that made sense. We wanted to show people, “Hey, this is a direct impact of mitigation factors.”
At the time, nobody was giving us advice. There’s no federal government discussion. There’s no state government, per se, guidance.
What are you most proud of?
We had one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, and we’ve had vaccination events in Music City Center, Nissan Stadium and our assessment sites. I think about our community assessment sites open for almost 120 weeks that provided testing, vaccines. … We lost fewer lives than modeling predicted.
Metric-wise, those are wins — but more so for me, what I was really proud of is [that] people came together, people supported each other, people brought their elderly neighbors to get the vaccine, we saw what Meharry Medical College is and does and continues to do. The partnerships with groups that support new Americans are continuing, so we now use these same relationships to talk about [supplemental nutrition programs] or childhood immunizations. It sounds cheesy, but as a Nashvillian, I’m really proud of our city.