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Dr. Nick Yphantides: a man on a “very passionate mission”


Dr. Nick Yphantides giving one of the County’s daily updates on the progress of the coronavirus and the County’s response to it.

Dr. Nick Yphantides, San Diego County’s Chief Medical Officer, is one of the most recognizable faces of the County’s response against COVID-19. Residents see him at the County’s daily updates on the progress of the disease, and know him as “Doctor Nick.”

Dr. Nick describes himself as a “man on a very passionate mission and I feel extremely blessed to be doing what I do now. There’s two sides to the passion and purpose. I feel I’ve seen this movie before but under a different set of circumstances.”

When  Yphantides became the County’s first Chief Medical Officer in 2009, the world faced its last pandemic, H1N1, the Swine Flu. “As fate would have it, the first confirmed case in the entire world was diagnosed here in San Diego County. The third fatality on earth from complications was my own father, George Yphantides. And so, as the story goes, there is a passion burning inside me that is driven to honor the legacy of my father George. He was a vulnerable, at risk member of my community who was the third victim.”

The Superbowl of Public Health

A man of deep personal faith, Dr. Nick says, “I am now convinced beyond any question that God has been preparing me my entire life for this exact moment. In a way that many of my colleagues have a difficult time understanding. I am so driven by this, though it may seem a little out of touch with reality. I feel that the storm burning inside in me right now is much greater than anything I will face with the COVID storm heading to San Diego now.”

His biggest challenge is not enough hours in the day to appropriately deal with each opportunity. This hyperactive period began on Friday, January 31, around 10 p.m. when he got a phone call from another well-known official,  Dr. Eric McDonald, the County Medical Director.

“He told me that San Diego was going to be receiving evacuees that would be brought to Miramar from Wuhan. That set off a sequence of events that has led to the most intense period of my life over the course of the last two months. What I find symbolically fascinating about this: I have told many people that this coronavirus crisis is the Superbowl of public health. The biggest health crisis of our life. And January 31 was a Friday night of Superbowl Weekend. I love the poetic tapestry of life and it is a phone call I will never ever forget.”

He has felt that sense of urgency ever since. “My life has not been the same since that moment.” An irrepressible sports fan and “baseball geek,” Dr. Nick pitches a baseball analogy: “What an amazing blessing it was to have that experience in dealing with those evacuees from China. Even though it was controversial, it was an incredible opportunity for us to prepare and mobilize and sort out the many logistics that we put in place and that we are using today. That was the spring training of the Major League of what we are preparing for.”

A head start on the virus

A third analogy is a medical one. This period  of preparation was like getting an inoculation. “The COVID experience we had at Miramar, just as an inoculation gives you just enough of the infection to prepare your immune system, we had just enough patients. Only two turned out to be positive. But that was the activation and mobilization of our entire region.”

This gave San Diego a head start on the rest of the state. “I have never ever experienced nor could I have imagined the level of alignment, collaboration, intimacy and transparency that we are experiencing as a county with all of our regional partners as we are preparing to face this storm.”

He adds, “I pray that at some point I will have the opportunity to look back and see the benefit of all of this effort that we have all been doing in protecting human life and preserving the integrity of our health care delivery system.”

In normal times, Yphantides is the Chief Medical Officer, the first ever for San Diego County. “As we promote integration we have to live integration. When you look at the County at the broad categorization at the governmental level, you have Public Health, Physical Health, and Behavioral Health, which is the substance abuse and prevention system.”

He explains, “My role has been as the chief clinical integration officer of the county. Working to bring together what in the past were not optimally coordinated systems. So in some ways, as the first Chief Medical Officer I have been fortunate to forge the path.” He directs the County’s EMS (emergency medical system,) is the convener of all Medicare-managed plans in our county, affecting nearly one million people. He heads Live Well San Diego, which according to the County “supports initiative/components and integration of clinical/medical services of Behavioral Health, Public Health, Aging Independence Services, Child Welfare Services, and HHSA Regional geographic areas.” Dr. Nick says,  “I have a touchpoint and liaison with the health care systems at the CEO level and medical physician level and with the payer. Especially with the people that are on Medical.”

Before taking that position he was chairman of the board of Palomar Health and before that medical director of Neighborhood Health that opened the Mountain Valleys clinic in Pauma Valley.

The 15 Second Sequel

He also wrote a book on dieting called “My Big Fat Greek Diet,” that also earned him a measure of fame. “I feel like everybody has their 15 seconds of fame, I’m starting to feel like this is the sequel for me.”

His job differs from two others who appear at the daily county briefings, Dr. Wilma Wooten and Dr. McDonald. “They are gifted and very versatile physicians.  They have a mandated responsibility; with Dr. Wooten having very specific designated authority and Dr. McDonald responsible for the epidemiology and immunization branch of public health services. Both have a tremendous responsibility given the current crises at hand.”

While he has some formal responsivity, “I see myself as someone who enables them, who has got their back, gives support as needed and provides them anything that I can in my role—which is many ways I describe as customized. I am living the experience of serving our community with the proverbial ‘other duties that are assigned.’ I am happy to provide whatever is needed. I’m director of the Emergency Medical System and in many ways this IS an emergency. I would describe myself as the medical air traffic control tower.”

As a public face of that emergency, people are starting to recognize him enough that it has become a challenge. “If I’m not at operational center I’m at home, but I feel like every person that I’ve ever known has been in touch with me,” he said. “Because I am on Facebook and have decided to share a few glimpses into my heart, I am amazed with the volume of communication coming my way. Most of which I haven’t been able to respond to. I don’t remember the last time I opened my personal email.”

Daily he hammers the same points of social distancing, washing hands, sanitizing, sheltering in place. Is it working? “I think the public is listening but I’m concerned that what we are doing will become more and more difficult for the public to comply with,” he says. “I have a little bit of a concern about the level of compliance that people will continue to follow.”

The calm before the storm

Dr. Nick has remarked that San Diego is at “the eye of the storm” that is approaching like a viral apocalypse. “I had to be corrected by an individual from Louisiana who clarified for me that we are not in the eye of the storm but rather we are in the calm before the storm. I can’t predict how bad things are going to be, but I can comfortably say they will be a lot worse than they currently are.”

The question he is asked the most is: “Where do I get the test?”

“Everybody wants the test. I tell them what I would tell anybody. The tests are reserved for those who need them the most and based on what you are doing, you don’t need a test.”

He wants the community to know, “What a blessing it is for me to be in this position, to serve, protect and preserve the community to the best of our ability. I think we are living and making history together. This is truly a once in a lifetime experience.”

One response to “Dr. Nick Yphantides: a man on a “very passionate mission””

  1. Bryan Ferkins says:

    So glad Dr. Nick is serving our community in this way!

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