By Jeffrey L. Boney, Associate Editor, Houston Forward Times
An “average Joe” is often described as “an ordinary person without anything exceptional about them.”
When it comes to two Houston-based doctors – Dr. Joseph Gathe, Jr. and Dr. Joseph Varon – referring to them as “average Joes” should be considered a huge slap in the face, because when it comes to these two gentlemen, they’re not your “average Joes” by any stretch of the imagination.
So many doctors, nurses and members of medical staffs across this country are putting their lives on the line to help save the lives of others and are doing their part to help make a difference in the lives of patients that have been impacted by the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Gathe and Dr. Varon are both infectious disease doctors and have been on the frontlines addressing the COVID-19 epidemic. Their stellar work has been highlighted by many major news outlets, elected officials and even celebrities.
Dr. Gathe, who was born in St. Louis, Missouri, has a storied history in the Greater Houston area. Not just because of the impact his family has had in the area of medicine generationally in the Greater Houston area, but because of his own personal reputation as being one of the only specialists in the Greater Houston area to tackle and treat the HIV/AIDS virus from the very early days of it becoming a major epidemic in the U.S., particularly amongst Black people.
Because Dr. Gathe is no stranger to dealing with unprecedented infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to heighten, he wanted to jump right in and figure out how to address it. After the virus began to spread across the Greater Houston area, Dr. Gathe connected with Dr. Varon in order to work collaboratively to address the pandemic.
Dr. Varon, who is originally from Mexico City, Mexico, has dual citizenship between Mexico and the United States, and has extensively practiced medicine in both countries over three decades and is also one of the leading infectious disease doctors in the Greater Houston area.
Dr. Gathe, who serves as the co-director of the COVID-19 Dedicated Care Unit at the United Memorial Medical Center (UMMC), said he got a call one day from Dr. Varon, and they began discussing patients they had recently seen that had been getting sick with this unusual new virus.
After comparing notes and experiences with patients, the two men decided to come together to see if they could make a difference. They knew they needed to have a base of operations, so Dr. Varon, who serves as UMMC’s Chief Medical Officer, suggested that there was available hospital space at UMMC to specifically deal with COVID-19 patients. Another reason that Dr. Varon suggested they function out of UMMC was because the CEO of UMMC, Syed Mohiuddin, was not afraid to reach out and care for this population.
Dr. Gathe decided to join Dr. Varon to work collaboratively to address COVID-19 patients, and within a week after the phone call, the COVID-19 Dedicated Care Unit was operational.
“My goal is, and has always been, to be part of an organized effort in our community to address this significant public health emergency,” said Dr. Gathe. “In the midst of an environment that is so full of confusion and misinformation, as well as a lack of an organized effort from a national perspective to address this pandemic, I felt I had to be a source of appropriate information relative to things we do know and we don’t know. It was important for me to do something at the local level in order to mitigate the damage that this infection is doing in our community.”
Since they began working together after establishing the COVID-19 Dedicated Care Unit at UMMC, none of the COVID-19 patients under the care and treatment of Dr. Gathe and Dr. Varon at UMMC to date have died. They have a unique and innovative COVID cocktail that they have created that they state is a difference maker and game changer when it comes to helping positive COVID-19 patients recover from the virus.
Dr. Varon and UMMC have gone even further in their commitment to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, as they have opened up numerous drive-thru testing sites across the Greater Houston area to tackle the virus and provide FREE testing to the community.
“We saw a need to detect COVID-19 early in February and we wanted to help people by finding the best options to do so,” said Dr. Varon. “We tried to approach a variety of people, but no one wanted to help. So, we decided to open up drive-thru testing sites, which Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee found as an appealing idea. Once she listened to our vision, she decided to become a major spokesperson of this endeavor. We immediately bought testing kits, made arrangements with a laboratory, and created a system that works like clockwork – ALL at no charge to the patient.”
Dr. Varon states that when the pandemic began, he reached out to Dr. Gathe because he had worked with him previously on special occasions, and he knew that Dr. Gathe was the right person to have a conversation with about how the virus should be addressed in the Greater Houston area.
“The COVID-19 pandemic gave Dr. Gathe and I the best opportunity to put our minds together and address this virus and it has allowed us to be real doctors working together again to save lives and make a difference,” said Dr. Varon.
Dr. Varon is deeply concerned about the community spread of this virus, especially amongst young African American males.
“I know that I am not African American, but I am still a minority and I cannot stand to see young African American people dying,” says Dr. Varon. “Statistics are showing that COVID-19 is impacting young Black males significantly and they are dying because of it.”
Dr. Varon is emphasizing the need for African Americans to get tested and treated for the virus.
“COVID-19 is here to stay and is not going anywhere,” says Dr. Varon. “We need to be smart about it. Testing is a priority in identifying where it stands. We do have treatment options, so if you have any symptoms, you need to contact your healthcare provider or come see us. We are not afraid to care for any COVID-19 patient. We want you to live!”
Dr. Gathe admits that the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything he has ever seen in his lifetime and believes that there must be an appropriate prevention message targeting communities that are the most vulnerable and impacted by the virus.
“We have to ensure that adequate FREE testing is available for every member of our community,” says Dr. Gathe. “More importantly, we must provide some interpretation to those who get tested, about what the results of that test actually means. We must also provide members of the community with appropriate outpatient therapy, inpatient care and an assurance that every individual is truly well enough to return to their home or work setting in a safe manner.”
Dr. Gathe has one message for the African American community.
“COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting our community as far as percentage of those infected, the percentage of those going into the hospital and the percentage of those who are dying. For our community, there are only two possibilities: Either you have it or you are at high risk of getting it…PERIOD. The difference between the two is getting tested to know your status. Once you get tested, if you have it seek medical treatment. If you don’t have it, do everything in your power not to get it, such as social distancing and wearing a mask until this public health emergency is under control, which will not be in the near future.”
In order to further help address the disproportionately affecting the African American community, Dr. Gathe and Dr. Varon have also formed a new nonprofit organization called the Cure COVID Consortium (CCC), which will use 100% of the funds they receive to offer a state of the art, comprehensive program for COVID-19 prevention efforts, a comprehensive testing program, and direct inpatient and outpatient medical care for those infected with the virus and for treatment that will be needed for vulnerable communities across the greater Houston area.
Not all superheroes wear capes, but in the case of these two Joes, they do wear white coats.