Infectious disease specialist offers insights into pandemic
By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
South Weymouth – As a physician specializing in infectious diseases, Dr. Todd Ellerin has worked with patients who have had a range of illnesses from HIV/AIDS, Lyme disease, and hospital acquired infections, among many others. Now as the coronavirus ravages the country, he has become a go-to expert on the pandemic, offering his measured, science-backed insights and commentary on local and national news programs.
A calling to concentrate in infectious diseases
Ellerin, who grew up in Lynnfield, admits he did not always want to be a doctor, in spite of the fact that his father was one.
“He was a dermatologist who did cosmetic surgery, and was really visionary in that field,” Ellerin said. “He was inspirational to me.”
But after Ellerin attended Tufts University as an undergrad, he took some time off and then decided to attend the university’s Medical School, graduating in 1998. He then did three years of residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
“It was incredible,” he said of his experience there. “The training was second to none.”
Working with many HIV/AIDS patients in East Baltimore convinced him that he wanted to concentrate his practice in infectious diseases.
After Johns Hopkins, he did fellowships at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. For the past 18 years he has served as the director of infectious diseases and now also serves as vice chairman of the department of medicine at South Shore Health in South Weymouth. There he treats patients with a host of bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic conditions.
He is also an associate physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, and does clinical research as well. And he is currently a principal investigator in the phase 3 clinical trial of a novel COVID-19 therapeutic.
During the pandemic Ellerin has served as a medical contributor for ABC News, appearing regularly on WCVB in Boston as well as national newscasts.
When he is able to take time away from his practice and media appearances, Ellerin enjoys spending time with his two children, Ruby, 15, and Brett, 12.
“I enjoy being with them and forgetting about COVID for a while,” he said. “That’s huge, just getting to be their dad. Love those kids!”
‘An unbelievable vaccine’
In January, Ellerin received the second of his two COVID-19 vaccines.
“The first shot I had zero side effects, the second just mild, maybe a 3 out of 10,” he said.
“It is really unbelievable,” he said of the vaccine’s efficacy. “No one was ever thinking it would be over 94%.”
For those who are hesitant to receive it he notes that “over 40,000 volunteers were enrolled in trials. And millions more have received it since it was approved. Very few people have received any significant side effects.”
That being said, he does remind people that while you might feel more comfortable once you receive the vaccine, it may not prevent the transmission of the virus; therefore standard safety protocols should still be followed.
He cautions that not all masks are created equal. Most 3 ply masks (such as the common blue surgical ones) are fine. Those with more compromised health issues should consider an N95 or KN95 mask.
“A single layer cloth mask is not good enough anymore, unless you put a filter in the pocket of it,” he added, “or you should consider wearing it over a disposable one.”
Concern regarding variants
Another concern in the fight against the coronavirus is the emerging spread of different strains of the virus, such as the so-called UK, Brazil, and South Africa variants.
“We are in the early stages of seeing whether or not the vaccine will be effective against some of these variants,” he said. “These variants may not necessarily in themselves be more deadly than the original strain, but because they are more contagious, that will increase the number of cases.”
And that, he added, may increase the number of hospitalizations and deaths.
While the rollout of vaccines being administered in Massachusetts has been slower than many other states, Ellerin is hopeful that the Biden administration will accelerate the production of the vaccines and that staffing will increase so that more Americans can get vaccinated.
He is also hopeful that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which will only require one dose and does not require a freezer, will receive emergency authorization from the FDA in February.
“That would be a huge game changer given our current logistical challenges,” he said.
Preparing for possible future pandemics
“History does help us prepare for emerging infections,” he said. “But the US was not prepared for this; a number of other countries were better prepared than we were.”
“We need to learn from this and have domestic readiness such as PPE, testing and other equipment. We cannot rely on other countries,” he added.
“And the only way we will get through this is working together.”