After her lauded appearance at Governor J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 press conference in March 2020, Dr. Emily Landon hasn’t really left the lectern. The infectious disease specialist and chief hospital epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine delivered an impassioned yet pragmatic speech about Illinois’s stay-at-home orders — viewed nearly half a million times on YouTube — that quickly established her as a clarifying voice amid the COVID-19 chaos. She became a household name on how to keep your household safe.
“Without taking drastic measures, the healthy and optimistic among us will doom the vulnerable,” she said in that speech. “We have to fight this fire before it grows too high.”
“Perfect blend of ethos, pathos, and logos,” praised one YouTube commenter. “Get this lady on NATIONAL TELEVISION IMMEDIATELY!!!!” said another.
Suddenly, Landon was everywhere: being quoted in articles; answering coronavirus questions on newscasts and podcasts; consulting with government officials and major organizations on how best to respond to the crisis. “[That speech] put me more in a public sphere, which is not really what I had expected out of my job,” she says.
Her job was already no small feat. In addition to working as an infectious disease doctor, she’s an associate professor of medicine and a medical ethicist who leads UChicago Medicine’s infection control and prevention efforts — the day-to-day challenges of which she found particularly exciting and interesting pre-COVID. “Things were different all the time. I’d have people literally call me and say, ‘I just spilled anthrax and I thought it was the vaccine strain, so I didn’t wear a mask and I cleaned it up. What do I do?!’ ” In the past two years, much of her work has involved steering the University of Chicago, its hospital, and its affiliates through the pandemic.
Landon admits she expected 2021 to be quieter than 2020. “I thought we’d have our — I’m gonna swear here — shit together. But we don’t. And looking back on the situation, we were never going to have our shit together. A huge pandemic doesn’t go away, even in 12 months. All of the historical evidence for this has been there the entire time.” The politicization of common-sense measures like masking and vaccination hasn’t helped.
So she continues in her voice-of-reason role, pointing to evidence, translating the science, speaking not just as an expert but as a concerned citizen, a mom.
Does her 13-year-old son take pride in her job? “Yeah, yeah,” Landon says. “But it’s not really that great when you’re the one making rules he doesn’t like: ‘Mom, why can’t I sit by my friends at lunch?! Why did you have to do that to me?!’ ”
You can’t win them all.