Pandemic brings attention to Georgia hopefuls with medical backgrounds

Dr. Rich McCormick is a Republican candidate in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District. Special.

A few months ago, Dr. Rich McCormick was another face in the crowded Republican race for a suburban congressional district. But the coronavirus pandemic has sent the emergency room physician’s profile soaring.

McCormick logs scores of views with his social media posts urging a speedier reopening of the U.S. economy. Fox News and other conservative outlets lean on his experience in TV interviews. And President Donald Trump retweeted one of his videos accusing Democrats of not letting a “crisis go to waste.”

“I didn’t become an ER doctor because I want to be a politician,” McCormick said. “I didn’t time this to the pandemic. But it just so happened that this is who I am. It’s helped reframe the race — it’s helped people understand the big picture.”

He’s among a small group of doctors, nurses and public health scientists who are competing for state and federal office in Georgia at a time when public attention is transfixed on a pandemic that’s transformed the state’s politics — and just about every facet of everyday life.

The same issues that typically shape elections, such as taxes and social divides, haven't stopped resonating with voters. But polls show the pandemic has quickly become the top issue in the June 9 primary — and candidates with M.D.s and R.N.s are fast finding they're inundated with attention.

Whether that translates into votes is not yet clear. Some have struggled to balance virtual campaigns with their mounting professional obligations. Others host online gatherings to answer voter questions — and remind them of their medical backgrounds.

Even spouses have come into play: U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff's debut ad features his wife, an OB-GYN.

“People now know what an epidemiologist does. They understand the rules of health care, the graphs and models that we use. They’re diving into these issues in their living rooms,” said Dr. Michelle Au, an anesthesiologist who is running for an open suburban state Senate seat.

She was among the first candidates in Georgia to suspend in-person activities as the outbreak spread. Suddenly, she was juggling shifts at Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital with virtual events for her campaign and scattered appearances on CNN and MSNBC as a medical analyst.

Dr. Michelle Au.

Credit: TheCOLCollection

Credit: TheCOLCollection

“Now it’s framed in vivid relief. Everyone’s lives are upended in this effort to contain this global pandemic and it makes it more digestible,” Au said. “We wish this wasn’t happening — it’s heartening to hear people speak in the language of public health.”

‘A useful skill set’

Georgia has a long history of physicians or those with medical backgrounds serving in key political roles. Sonny Perdue was a veterinarian before becoming Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Tom Price, a former congressman, was briefly Trump’s health secretary.

And Dr. Paul Broun, a family physician, is attempting a comeback bid after serving four terms in the U.S. House. He recently tried to grab attention with an ad warning of "looting hordes from Atlanta" descending on rural North Georgia during the "uncertain times," though he's mostly focused on economic and social issues.

He’s among a half-dozen candidates with medical backgrounds competing for Georgia’s 14 U.S. House seats. And at least seven physicians are running for state legislative seats in November, along with 13 contenders with backgrounds in nursing.

That's an unprecedented number of nurses running for office in Georgia, said Michelle Nelson of the Georgia Coalition of Advanced Practice Registered Nurses. She said many want to give nurses broader authority.

“We have to have advocates for nursing to be able to ensure that restrictions are lifted,” she said. “And we are encouraging more nurses to run because everyone needs optimal healthcare.”

Not surprisingly, the medical professionals are leaning heavily on their experience. Dr. John Cowan, a Rome neurosurgeon running in Georgia's deeply conservative 14th Congressional District, starts his first TV ad in full hospital scrubs. He ends it at a shooting range with a burst from an assault rifle that shreds a mock coronavirus target.

The Republican’s campaign was focused on health care from the get-go, with dire warnings about how rising health care costs could pose a threat to national security. He said the pandemic’s spread has unfortunately vindicated those fears by demonstrating how a “microbe can cripple our economy.”

A screenshot from Dr. John Cowan's ad.

His campaign has been flooded with questions from voters. At first, he said, most asked about disease symptoms and safety precautions. Now the questions involve how to restart the economy. He plugs himself as someone who understands the “dilemmas our president and our governor have to deal with.”

On the virtual campaign trail, Democrat Rebecca Mitchell takes the opposite approach. An epidemiologist with a doctoral degree in infectious disease modeling, she has forcefully criticized Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen parts of the economy as she runs for a Gwinnett County-based state House seat.

“I wish that this weren’t a useful skill set right now. Every day I hope we’re wrong,” she said. “Every day we’re wrong is a good day. No matter where you stand, everyone watching those numbers wants the experts to be wrong.”

Au, the anesthesiologist, said she’s noticed another side effect of the pandemic.

“People are very distrustful of politics and institutions in a way we haven’t seen before,” she said. “But they still trust doctors, nurses and medical professionals. And people still view me as a doctor first, and it gives them an innate level of trust.”

‘Doing my job’

When state Sen. Renee Unterman jumped in the race for Georgia's 7th Congressional District — a stretch of Forsyth and Gwinnett counties — news coverage focused on how the race could be shaped by her role as a main sponsor of Georgia's anti-abortion law.

June 6, 2019 Gwinnett County- State Senator Renee Unterman addresses the crowd during the announcement of her congressional bid on Thursday, June 6, 2019 in Buford, Georgia. Unterman will campaign to represent Georgia's seventh congressional district, and is running as a pro-life Republican. She strongly supported the passage of Georgia's heartbeat bill.(Christina Matacotta/christina.matacotta@ajc.com)

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

But now the retired nurse is more likely to be questioned about her medical background and experience as the one-time head of the state Senate’s health care panel — a role that helped her shape state health care policy and influence the budget for mental and behavioral health programs.

“It has crystallized the importance of health care policy,” she said. “I’ve been flooded with calls about high costs of prescriptions. People are cutting back, whether they’re working in restaurants or they’re elderly. It’s having a trickle-down effect, and it’s exacerbated the fissures in the health care system.”

Her top rival appears to be McCormick, the emergency room physician who is leading in several internal polls of the Republican contest. A U.S. Marine veteran, McCormick spoke of harrowing night-vision landings as a helicopter pilot in combat zones and unimaginable split-second decisions in the ER.

But as he spoke, shortly before his usual overnight shift at Gwinnett Medical Center, McCormick allowed that this campaign has challenged him in other ways.

“The real stress is not being able to fight back. I’m working a full-time job as an ER doc during a pandemic and running a full-time campaign,” he said. “It’s not benefiting me like people claim it did. It’s highlighted my role — but I’m just doing my job.”

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