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Ellis bows out Dec. 30 after serving as Pardee CMO, general in Covid war

Dr. David Ellis retires Dec. 30 after serving since 2014 as chief medical officer for Pardee UNC Health and for the past 22 months as a key leader in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. David Ellis retires Dec. 30 after serving since 2014 as chief medical officer for Pardee UNC Health and for the past 22 months as a key leader in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

When he was appointed chief medical officer of Pardee UNC Health seven years ago, David Ellis could not possibly have predicted that he would spend the final 22 months of his career as a field general in the war on a pandemic.

But that’s the job he and hundreds of others — from hospital CEOs to environmental services workers — have been called on to do. During the medical community’s coronavirus response that extended from days to weeks to months, Ellis has as much as anyone served as the public face of a vast health care team, appearing frequently on local television news, in radio interviews and news accounts. Ellis admits to mask fatigue while repeating for the thousandth time his best medical advice: wash your hands, wear a mask, get the vax. As for his contributions to the medical game plan that has prevented even worse outcomes, healed folks and saved lives, the physician delivers a humble assessment.
“We’ve all just gotten up, gotten dressed and done our job,” he says.
Ellis, 65, was born and raised in Tullahoma, Tennessee, where his father owned a Ford dealership and his mother kept the books. After attending prep school in his home state, Ellis enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
“I wanted to be out of the South for a while,” he says when asked what led him to snowy New England. “I wanted a different part of the country, a different feel. That was a time when different parts of the country were truly different from each other. There weren’t Walmarts in every town.”
After earning undergraduate degrees in English and economics, he went way south, studying medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans. After he completed his residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston in 1987, Ellis and his wife, Deanna, moved to Hendersonville, joining Drs. Marion Ross and Gene Dennison as a partner with Hendersonville Ob/Gyn before founding his own practice in 1998. Ellis retires as Pardee’s chief medical officer on Dec. 30.
Here is Lightning editor Bill Moss’s valedictory interview with Dr. Ellis:

How has medicine changed since you started in the 1980s?

“When I came to Hendersonville there were very few if any doctors that were employed by hospitals. Almost everybody was in private practice. Everybody’s charts were on paper. Most patients had commercial insurance that paid 80 percent. HMOs, PPOs, all that stuff really didn’t exist. All of that has changed. The majority of doctors are employed by hospitals. Almost everybody is on EMR (electronic medical records) now. The practice itself of medicine hasn’t changed but the whole structure of how those practices are run has changed. Most doctors now have a boss. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s good or bad, it’s just the economics of the profession.”

What do you remember about your first direct involvement with the coronavirus?

“I remember the first case we had at Pardee, which happened on a weekend. I remember, for reasons that I don’t recall why, I was sitting in my garage in a lawn chair and the administrative team got on a Webex (video conference call) I believe on a Sunday afternoon and talked about what this meant and how we were going to handle it and how we were going to deal it. I remember talking to (infectious disease director) Chris Parsons prior to that case and he was saying I wish we’d go ahead and have a case. Waiting for the first case is almost worse than treating patients.”

I recall that we talked early on about how this would be over fairly quickly.

“I remember standing in the parking lot at Blue Ridge (testing clinic) when I told you it would be over in — Did I say six weeks? Back in the ’50s and ’60s when everybody was worried about polio, world travel just didn’t exist. If Ebola broke out in Africa that was an Africa problem. I think that’s all part of (the global spread) — the amount of travel and movement of people. Mutations of the virus has contributed to this too. That’s what viruses do, they mutate. I think we all think that it’s not close to being over at this point. While we hope the surges will be more molehills than mountains, there’s no guarantee of that. To say that it has been persistent and tenacious would certainly be an understatement."

How would you grade the medical community’s response to the pandemic?

"I think the response frankly was remarkable. I just remember sitting down with (public health director) Steve Smith and (emergency management director) Jimmy Brissie. It was a Friday afternoon, talking about setting up a testing center at Blue Ridge. Within 48 hours we had that up. I think the people of Henderson County can’t really understand the amazing amount of cooperation that occurred by Jimmy and Advent and the health department and Pardee.” Ellis praised the work of Dr. Larry Russell and Dr. Anna Hicks for setting up a rapid response team to go into nursing home to determine which patients needed to be hospitalized. “From the time Covid started we had an ongoing phone call every day at 8 a.m. including weekends between Advent and Pardee and the health department and Blue Ridge Community Health Center and Dr. Russell and Dr. Hicks so we could understand what was going on on a day to day basis. We continue to talk, it’s two years later. It’s that kind of cooperation and integration that allows everybody to not work in silos and to do what’s best for the community. I honestly can’t imagine how the response could have been better. People of Henderson County are very, very fortunate to have as many people who care about the welfare of the county as they have. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chris Parsons (Pardee’s infectious disease director), who has spent the last two years of his life on this almost every day, (sharing) his knowledge and expertise, his study of this virus. I would venture to say he took care of every patient we had in the hospital. Henderson County and the region is lucky to have had him. … When we needed a place to do the vaccine clinic Dr. Leatherwood stepped up with no hesitation. She said, ‘Please come set up here (to BRCC) as long as you need and do whatever you need.’”

Can you talk about how the pandemic has affected the workload and morale of health care providers?

“It has truly affected everybody. It’s not just doctors, it’s the nurses, nursing aides, it’s dietary, it’s environmental services, it’s everybody in the hospital. In the job I’m in, I think about this virus almost all the time every day. … Frankly, it’s fatiguing. We would like to get on with the business of running the hospital, expanding services, doing the things the community needs but right now this is what the community needs.”

We saw protests ramp up this past summer and comments at Board of Commissioners and School Board meetings against mask mandates and vaccination. How would greater vaccination rates help?

“If we took the vaccination rate from 50 percent to 90 percent, 20 people in the hospital probably becomes four or five.” Protests seemed to rise “from what I felt was more politics than medicine. I don’t think there’s ever been a medical situation that’s been politicized as much as this has been politicized. People talk about individual liberties, I get that. I know what the Constitution says and doesn’t say. The Constitution doesn’t guarantee you the right to go into private dwelling or a private business without a mask if they tell you you need to wear a mask. There is a time when public health trumps private rights. If this was Ebola and not Covid and everybody who got it died, at some point public health trumps your right to ignore what’s going on. Certainly there are people who would completely disagree with that point of view but that is my point view.”

Did the political environment make hospital officials constrained or muzzled?

“I never felt constrained. I felt frustrated by it. It’s hard enough dealing with the pandemic — when you add on top of that this layer of animosity, it just made it that much harder. I didn’t feel constrained with media interviews I did telling people what I thought and what I thought the truth was but certainly the adversarial nature of how this all unfolded created a lot of frustration.”

So, just to check this box, what’s your parting recommendation on health precautions?

“I’ll say the same thing I’ve been saying for almost two years. I am mask fatigued just like everybody is mask fatigued. I don’t think there’s any question that they work, that they decrease the transmission of this virus, and I think we just have to realize that the virus is here and we have to figure out what our new normal is. Again, washing hands, staying distant, wearing a mask is certainly the best way to stay healthy, and getting vaccinated. Obviously, I’m a proponent of the vaccine. I believe in it, I trust it. Looking at variants, the vaccine might not keep you from getting infected but there’s no question that it decreases the severity of the illness.”


You did have a life before Covid. What’s the most rewarding part of your career?

“As an ob-gyn, it’s an amazing privilege to do what I’ve done. I’ve taken care of people at a time in their life that is basically the most joyful time that they have and I’ve been allowed to do that. … To say what would be the most joyful moment I ever had would be impossible because it’s a profession that’s filled with joy. To think of the trust women have to have to put their lives and their babies’ lives in your hands — it’s just a privilege.”

What are you Deanna going to do now?

“We’re going to do some traveling. My hobbies are pretty much around the house. I actually love taking care of my yard and love taking care of the vegetable garden and I’ll have more time for that, not just do it on Saturday and Sunday.”

Anything else important that I have failed to ask?

“No, there’s really not very much important about me to be honest. I’m just one of those guys that gets up and does his job every day.”