In normal times, Dr. Vin Gupta would be spending more time with his family and less time on national TV.
But since the world is battling a pandemic — and a flood of conflicting information — pick any weekday and you’ll likely see Gupta, a critical care pulmonologist and an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, on at least one news show on either NBC or MSNBC as a medical contributor.
After about 350 TV appearances since the start of the pandemic, sometimes in scrubs but usually in a white coat, Gupta has become one of the most visible medical commentators on COVID-19, along with CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta (no relation).
Whether the topic is masks, gatherings, traveling or vaccines, Gupta has a quick and passionate answer. He gets emotional — and sometimes a bit angry — when refuting positions that President Donald Trump and his administration have taken that are not science based.
“We’re not rounding the corner. … Thirty-nine states are seeing an increase in hospitalizations, so we’re not rounding the corner,” Gupta said Thursday on “The 11th Hour With Brian Williams” on MSNBC, calling out Trump’s false characterization of the pandemic during his debate earlier that night with former Vice President Joe Biden.
Gupta said he feels an obligation to use the platform, though he is a reluctant star. His confident and assertive manner belies the fact that he sometimes wonders how well his message is resonating and his worry that his TV appearances might come across as stealing the spotlight from other medical professionals.
“Circumstance has it that I have a platform that reaches a lot of eyeballs, and in this era of misinformation, people rely on their sources of news to guide them, so I take it very seriously,” said Gupta, who treats COVID-19 patients in the ICU. “The platform comes with an enormous responsibility to make sure the facts are right and that you’re getting the right information.”
Gupta, 37, has a bachelor’s degree from Princeton, a master’s in international relations from Cambridge and a master’s in public administration from Harvard. His M.D. is from Columbia and he had a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Harvard.
“He can take a complex topic and simplify it for the average person to understand,” said Dr. Ali Mokdad, chief strategist for population health at UW and a former top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “He comments to people on a personal level, and has the expertise behind it. It’s why he’s getting a lot of people to listen to him.”
Gupta never expected he would still be doing this, so many months after the pandemic hit.
“I value the opportunity to try to lead and to provide scientific information and clarity to American families,” Gupta said. “I find that very fulfilling — especially the response I get and the desire to hear more. It’s reinforcing that maybe some of this is coming through the noise.”
Williams, the MSNBC anchor who often has Gupta on as a guest, believes that it is.
“I have come to rely on him — as have our viewers — for his sound judgment and experience,” Williams said in an email. “Vin brings to our coverage the perfect mix of passion and expertise. There is an urgency to our interviews because there is an urgency to his work. He speaks for those he is treating — the patients who cannot speak for themselves.”
Science and politics
Gupta has long been a media source because of his expertise in medicine, public policy and international relations. He is also a major in the Air Force Reserve Medical Service Corps, serving as a deployable critical care aerospace physician with the 446th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Because of his previous experience with pandemics, including working with the military on bolstering pandemic preparedness in countries including Uganda, Gupta was a natural source on the coronavirus.
When the virus hit here, he began treating COVID-19 patients while working about seven clinical shifts a month, mostly nights and weekends, at Virginia Mason Medical Center and with the USAF Medical Corps Reserve — while maintaining his role as research scientist with IHME and other public health obligations.
In March, Gupta became a formal medical contributor for NBC and MSNBC. His life suddenly got much busier.
You might see Gupta on “Morning Joe,” which starts at 3 a.m. (Pacific Time) on MSNBC, then that night with Williams, whose program starts at 8 p.m., with other appearances in between. Gupta said he’s blessed to have the chance to talk to the nation, but it comes at a cost.
“Between military obligations, my clinical obligations and my other public health roles — then fitting in multiple [TV] spots a day — it means you don’t get a lot of sleep,” Gupta said. “And there is stress that comes with [TV], because you’re out there and you’re exposed.”
“I crave the days when I can spend time with my 3-year-old and my wife, and not think about breaking news or coming up with talking points. … I didn’t think this would be going on for nine months, I’ll tell you that.”
Gupta said his goal is to present scientific facts and nonpartisan data, but when they run contrary to Trump’ remarks, on such things as masks, his commentary can come across as partisan.
“Sometimes the policy of elected officials isn’t science-based, but it’s a critique of the policy and not a critique of the person,” Gupta said. “Sometimes you blur the lines between science and politics as a commentator, and you try very hard to avoid that. But it’s hard not to do, crossing that line sometimes.”
Gupta said he has received death threats credible enough that Seattle and UW police got involved. He also has received unlabeled packages in the mail.
“There is a concern for your welfare and the welfare of your loved ones that unfortunately comes with this,” Gupta said.
Most of the feedback is positive, he said, but about 10% “act like I’m a spokesman for a political party and an antagonist of the president. You’re never going to please everyone in this day and age. I understand that.”
UW in the spotlight
Gupta appears before a background display of the logos of UW Medicine and IHME (which has become nationally known for its coronavirus projection models). He has a backdrop in his work office and in his den at home.
“It’s good for the university that people know we are on the cutting edge in terms of research, and it’s very powerful for us,” Mokdad said.
That Gupta usually appears in his white doctor’s coat is by design. It’s a visual that emphasizes science, as is the background he uses.
“We’re in a place where people’s minds are so rooted, that you’re only going to come through if people view you as an expert and it very much helps that the University of Washington, the Medical Center and the IHME have willingly said use our background,” said Gupta, who began working for IHME in 2018 and did his internal medicine training at the UW. “There are a lot of self-identified experts out there, so it’s really helpful to have the credibility of that affiliation.”
Mokdad said Gupta is a great person to represent the university.
“He’s very young, very energetic and will never say no to anything,” said Mokdad, a senior faculty member at IHME. “I love this guy. You meet people who are very smart and know what they’re doing and you meet people who you connect with on a personal level — this is a great human being, and he cares or she cares. You rarely find a person who is both. Vin is that.”
Gupta comes across as sure on TV, but he sometimes questions himself.
“Am I doing the right thing? Am I using the platform responsibly? Am I actually being helpful when the half of the country watching me [on left-leaning MSNBC] probably agrees with everything I’m saying?” he said. “There is a lot of internal debate about what’s effective, what’s not effective.”
Encouragement from Sanjay Gupta and other colleagues has been a boost. So Vin Gupta continues, putting in eight hours a week to prepare for his TV spots, which he said if added together, comes to less than an hour on air per week.
“It’s a lot of work and sometimes that might not be obvious,” Gupta said.
He knows in doing so he is representing many others.
“There are a lot of us on the front line, across the country and the world, doing an incredible amount of work to keep their patients and families safe, but just a few of us who have spotlights and platforms,” Gupta said. “I’m mindful I’m speaking on behalf of a large community and I feel privileged for that opportunity. I don’t want it to be perceived as me doing it alone. I never want to take credit away from the legion of others who are doing the exact same thing.”