Three years and three months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, Chair of the Department of Medicine at UCSF Dr. Bob Wachter has done his last "Grand Rounds" forum on YouTube, but he stresses that the novel coronavirus and its variants will remain very much a part of our lives for years to come.
"Doing this series has been exceedingly gratifying," Wachter tweeted on Tuesday, after the publication of a Chronicle piece about the last Grand Rounds broadcast on Friday. "Grateful to my [UCSF Department of Medicine] team & to the [more than] 100 speakers from UCSF & around the world who educated me & our audience on the key issues each week."
Wachter has been an affable, calm, but cautious voice on Twitter and YouTube since the start of the pandemic, offering his perspective on when and how to venture out after the lockdowns, weighing one's risk level against one's priorities. For those — especially those who are older or immunocompromised — who have sought sane advice over the last two years since the vaccines were released about how to rejoin society, Wachter has been a consistently reliable source of data and insight in a frequently changing pandemic.
SFist first spoke to Dr. Wachter in July 2020, when he was optimistic about San Francisco's chances to keep mortality rates low — having avoided the terrible surges that were seen in the early pandemic in New York City and elsewhere.
"There was no good reason that San Francisco couldn't have been New York, and New York has had 25,000 deaths," he said at the time. (San Francisco would later clock over 1,200 deaths, but that was after four or more waves of the pandemic that we couldn't see coming at the time.)
We've followed Wachter subsequently through the saga of his son getting COVID in January 2022 when half the city seemed to be infected. Then his wife got it in May of last year, and he tweeted about her experience having long COVID — though it seems he never actually got infected himself, after following his own advice.
Wachter said in May on a Chronicle podcast that he was "ready to move on" from the pandemic, but he and others have been careful to say that it isn't really over, even if the emergency phase has passed. And on Friday, he and his Grand Rounds colleagues said we are in transition to an endemic phase now, and deaths and severe cases remain increasingly rare among the vaccinated. The three final Grand Rounds panelists were Emory University School of Medicine Professor Carlos Del Rio, Mark Smith, a clinical professor of medicine at UCSF; and Katelyn Jetelina of the “Your Local Epidemiologist” newsletter.
"We have an immunity wall that is pretty significant," Del Rio said Friday, however he said he is still masking up in crowded environments, and Dr. Smith said he still wears a mask in a car with strangers.
Del Rio added that he hopes the CDC will recommend the new XBB variant booster shot for everyone this fall, just the like the flu vaccine — and it may be that we will see seasonal waves and new, potentially worse variants crop up for years to come.
As for when we can actually call the pandemic over-over? None of the experts want to say — but the retiring of the Grand Rounds broadcasts is certainly a significant milestone.
SFist retired its COVID tracking page in early March, given the dearth of good information anymore and the prevalence of at-home testing.
As the Chronicle notes, the YouTube series has garnered over 4 million views in its three-year run, and Wachter has amassed 274,000 followers on Twitter as well.