Gator Nation News

Poking and Prodding

From church pulpits and Zoom town halls to administering the vaccine in the Swamp, Dr. Mike Lauzardo is seemingly everywhere in his quest to contain COVID-19. Read his optimistic answer to the question on everyone’s mind: When will things return to normal?

A pulmonologist, TB researcher and deputy director of the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect effort, Dr. Mike Lauzardo has tirelessly led UF’s efforts to keep campus and community safe since the pandemic broke out in March 2020. “Public health is about everybody,” says Lauzardo. “It’s about making sure we reach out and deal with problems where they are.”

“From the very beginning, I always envisioned a career of service. Our parents encouraged us with the old saying, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”

That is how Dr. Mike Lauzardo — pulmonologist, deputy director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute and director of the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect initiative — explains his longstanding commitment to public health. The younger son of hardworking Cuban immigrants and a man of deep faith, Lauzardo (MD ’91), 56, has indefatigably led UF’s efforts to keep campus and community safe since the coronavirus pandemic erupted in March 2020.

He oversees the university’s screening, testing and communitywide vaccination protocols; has held more than 70 town halls for faculty and staff; writes a biweekly pandemic newsletter that reaches 33,000+ UF faculty and employees; has helped Alachua County vaccinate more than 11,000 individuals — and that is just a fraction of his efforts to improve the public good.

He holds dedicated town halls in Spanish for UF cleaning staff and farmworkers across the state. On weekends, you’ll find him speaking at churches on Gainesville’s east side to overcome vaccine hesitancy among people of color and marginalized groups.

Oh, and there’s his work abroad. Since 2011, he has overseen UF’s Haiti Public Health Research Laboratory, in Gressier, Haiti, a country with the highest tuberculosis rates in the Americas.

About six times a year, he and his wife, fellow Gator physician Dr. Eileen Lauzardo (MD ’91), travel to Latin America to treat children with cancer through their Keira Grace Foundation, a life-giving nonprofit born from the ashes of personal tragedy. In 2003, the Lauzardos lost their 17-month-old daughter, Keira, to leukemia. Since then, their foundation has helped thousands of children in developing countries get excellent, free cancer care.

“Around 300 to 400 children are alive today who wouldn’t be otherwise,” he noted about the Keira Grace Foundation survivors.

Despite working around the clock, Lauzardo recently found time to sit down with Gator Nation News. Here are excerpts from that interview:

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Let me get to a question that is on everyone’s mind. How much longer will COVID-19 be with us?
I’m on the optimist side of the spectrum. I think we start getting back to normal this summer, probably as soon as early summer. But COVID will probably be around for a long time. We're not going to go to zero. It will probably become endemic, in other words, like flu and other viruses that can have seasonal patterns. We will eventually get enough immunity to the virus where people won’t die from it, people won’t go to the hospital in the same amounts as they’re doing now. At that point, we will get by without masking or physically distancing. So, I think we start the path to normal here in the next few months.
What does that path look like?

I think it will be a gradual process. There’s still a bit of heavy lifting left. We’ve got to get the majority of people vaccinated, we’ve got to not give up the masks yet. Like I keep saying, keep fighting until the bell rings. I think it happens relatively soon.

The problem is, we are still going to have to monitor things for the next six or seven months. Make sure people are doing what they need to do. All of those protocols work, and if people cooperate, it will be good. … It’s not going to be like a light switch, but I think this has the potential to be one fantastic summer.

How long will we need to continue wearing masks?
At least through April. The tension will be, as more people get vaccinated, more people are going to not want to wear a mask, right? They’ll think, “Oh, I’m good. I don’t need to wear this anymore,” which isn’t true. We’re going to have a period … when there is a lot of variability as to who’s gotten vaccinated and who hasn’t. That is going to be a tense moment.

As director of Screen, Test & Protect, Lauzardo serves as the public face of UF’s efforts to control COVID-19 on campus and the community. Here he speaks with a member of the press shortly after receiving his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020.

Because it still hasn’t been determined if vaccinated people can pass on the virus or not, or to what extent, right?
Yes. Plus, there are other unknowns. As people get vaccinated, we keep seeing (infection) rates drop, but there are the variants. Much has been made of them without a lot of concrete information. The variants could spoil things or make them last longer. But if we wear masks and get vaccinated and things fall into place, it’s realistic to say this could be a mostly mask-less summer.
So, springtime is not the time to let down our guard.
Right.
When did you get vaccinated?
Right before Christmas. They made it a media thing. I got my second dose four weeks later. It was the Moderna vaccine.
Did you have any side effects?
Just the mild ones that most people have. My arm was sore. With the second dose, I had a little bit more body aches that evening. I took some Motrin when I got the symptoms and slept, and I was good to go the next morning. I didn’t miss work or have to stop doing anything; then the symptoms just passed. The vast majority of people have mild reactions like that.

Along with his wife, Lauzardo is a co-founder of the Keira Grace Foundation, which provides free cancer treatments to children in developing countries. He is shown here with two patients on a December 2011 visit to Hospital Infantil, in the Dominican Republic, along with former UF wide receiver and Athletic Hall of Fame inductee Chris Doering (right).

What’s the best vaccine?
The first one you can get.
You spent years with EPI battling tuberculosis in Haiti. What was it like transitioning to doing public health right here, in the United States, when COVID hit? Did your TB work prime you for this moment?
I think it did. That experience was a big advantage because COVID, like tuberculosis, is mostly an airborne respiratory infection — although it’s a virus, and TB is bacterial. There are lots of similarities in how you control the two diseases from a public health standpoint: contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. Reaching out across very different populations, some are marginalized, some are at higher risk. The idea of having to communicate in difficult situations — all that came with the territory, so to speak, with tuberculosis.
Did anything surprise you about COVID-19?
The one thing I wasn’t prepared for — and I kind of thought at this stage of my career I’d seen a lot — is the sheer speed at which everything went. We (public health specialists) jokingly say COVID is like TB on crack. It’s going a million miles an hour and in a million different directions.

The Lauzardo family cherishes time together, especially since the loss of infant daughter Keira to acute myelogenous leukemia in 2003. Shown here in March 2014, clockwise from left, are son Ryan, Mike Lauzardo, his wife, Eileen, and daughter Sophia. At age 4, Ryan was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He endured 38 months of treatment and has been in remission since 2005.

What attracted you to the field of public health?
It encompasses so many different skillsets. There is no way to possibly be bored. You’re doing everything: communicating, applying good science, practicing good science, innovating. You’re dealing with political challenges and navigating some very difficult waters. … But at the end of the day, the first word in public health is “public,” right? We’re dealing with the public, and it is our job to protect people. We are the guardians of their health, and we do it at a population level.
There are people who insist COVID-19 is a “hoax” or not a serious threat. Other people, legitimately, fear for their lives. How do you, as a communicator, motivate and connect with people on both sides?
Dealing with the deep fear and anxiety, and at the same time with the polar opposite, dealing with the deniers: It is very, very challenging. … I try to get people to realize, “Hey, let’s meet in the middle, guys. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and not on either extreme.” This disease is real, and there are science-based things we can do to greatly reduce the risk for everyone.

Lauzardo participates in many Spanish-language town halls to address the public’s concerns about the pandemic and vaccine safety. This March 27 Zoom event, “Facing the Challenges of COVID-19,” featured a panel with Lauzardo, physicians, a psychologist and a vicar from Chicago.

Like your colleagues, you have been working nonstop since the start of the pandemic. I am sure it has been stressful. How do you keep yourself sane and balanced?

I don’t know if I’ve been successful at keeping sane (laughs), but my faith gives me context, and the motivation behind doing things gives me grounding. I feel like I am doing something much bigger than myself, much bigger than COVID.

On the day-to-day, more human side of things — between sleep, exercise and eating, I’ve got two of the three that I’m doing well. … Most days, I get up at 4 a.m. and ride my stationary bike for 45 minutes and do other exercises. I go for a really long (10-mile) run on the weekends. Usually eating is a fast thing, but I’m doing better with my nutrition lately.

How about sleep?
It varies. … I come from a long line of people who don’t sleep a great deal. My dad didn’t sleep much. His dad didn’t sleep much. But, yeah, with the pandemic, I’m sleeping less than I’ve ever slept before.
Your colleague, virologist John Lednicky, told me he sleeps four to five hours a night. Is that ...?

Yeah, that’s where I’m at, too.

Look, this work with COVID needs to be done, and if there is time now to be awake, it’s time to do it. So, I’m extremely tired all the time, but I’m extremely exhilarated at the same time. It might sound crazy to say that, but these interactions keep me going and motivate my colleagues to do the same.

Look in the summer/fall 2021 issue of Florida Gator magazine for an in-depth story on Dr. Mike Lauzardo. Become a member of the UF Alumni Association here to have the magazine mailed free to your home. Visit https://connect.ufalumni.ufl.edu/home to join.

Access key resources about COVID-19 and updates from UF Health, including videos with Dr. Lauzardo and his colleagues, at https://coronavirus.ufhealth.org/

Learn more about the Keira Grace Foundation at https://keiragracefoundation.org

A vigorous COVID-19 testing effort at The Villages by UF Health researchers and their collaborators in March and April 2020 showed that social distancing helped slow the spread of the virus in that community of older adults. Here, Lauzardo hosts a training session for his volunteers in March 2020, prior to the full rollout of masking and social distancing protocols.