Infectious Disease Expert Ramps Up Roswell Park’s Defense During Pandemic

Katherine Mullin, MD

With an aggressive, unseen enemy all around us, today we rely more than ever on the expert advice of our infectious disease specialists at Roswell Park. Katherine Mullin, MD, Director of Infection Control and Prevention, is on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. She and her team advise our healthcare providers and support staff about the best ways to reduce the risk of infection. Here she discusses what she and her colleagues do to protect our patients, staff and community at large.

What attracted you to this field?

I went to medical school knowing I wanted to be an infectious disease doctor. Growing up, I was always fascinated by epidemics and how they changed history. And I loved the fact that you got to see all different types of patients — everything from surgical patients, patients with malignancies, to patients with cardiac infections. I loved the idea of being a really good general doctor but having a niche specialty knowledge as well.

What’s your usual day-to-day routine?

In my infectious disease physician role, I spend my time seeing patients. Patients who have cancer are at higher risk for getting infections, because the immune system is weakened by both the cancer itself and the necessary surgery and treatments.

As the Director of Infection Control, my job is to ensure that routine practices and procedures around the hospital minimize infection risk — for example, to ensure that general rates of infections, such as surgical site infections, remain low. We talk with people in many different parts of the hospital — Facilities, Environmental Services, the operating rooms — to ensure that we’re all following standard procedures to limit the risk of infection for every patient who walks through the door.

Tell us about your team.

I have two excellent colleagues here at Roswell Park who are also infectious disease doctors. The three of us physicians direct the infectious disease consult service. We see patients in the hospital who have a variety of different infections.

We also have an Infection Control division with several excellent infection preventionists who have special training in how to reduce infection-related risk throughout the whole hospital. They are our biggest assets.

I am really lucky we have such a great team. I see our role as being a steadying hand in this very tumultuous time.

How are you and your team dealing with this?

We’re looking forward to see where the potential risks are and trying to get ahead of the game to make sure we’re preventing any of those things from actually happening. The more prepared we are going into a crisis, the easier it will be to emerge from the crisis.

Some of our policies and best practices were already in place before COVID-19 became part of our lives, because most of our patients are immunocompromised, so we’ve always had a very high threshold for infection control measures. Part of it is just continuing the standard course that we know is best for keeping patients safe.

Has anything in your career compared to what we’re experiencing right now during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Not at this level. In 2009, during H1N1 [also known as “swine flu”], we were similarly concerned about a potentially very high mortality rate with a similarly contagious disease process. But with that epidemic, we did not see the impact on society and other specific things that make this current coronavirus so problematic. This is truly a unique time in history.

This is a totally new virus. Scientific evidence about the virus is changing by the day, and we’re trying to stay on top of all of the updates so we can continue to deliver great care to our patients.

Dr. Mullin earned her medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine. She completed her residency at University Hospitals/Case Western Reserve University as well as a fellowship in infectious disease at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She is board-certified in both internal medicine and infectious diseases.