Clinical Center News
October / November 2023

Secretary Becerra recognizes CC duo for pandemic response

Dr. DeGiorgi and Debbie Gutierrez represent the countless CC staff who performed heroically

Andrea Palm, Debbie Gutierrez and Xavier Becerra
HHS Deputy Secretary, Andrea Palm, Debbie Gutierrez and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra
Andrea Palm, Dr. Valeria De Giorgi and Xavier Becerra
HHS Deputy Secretary Andrea Palm, Center's Dr. Valeria De Giorgi and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra honored the Clinical Center's Dr. Valeria De Giorgi, and Debbie Gutierrez for their leadership and outsize effort during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The pair were among dozens of staffers across the NIH and other HHS agencies to receive secretary commendations from Becerra. "The fact that we all can be here without wearing a mask is testament to what you did," Becerra said during an Aug. 22 awards ceremony at HHS Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "You wrote that story, even though you may not be in the headlines every day."

De Giorgi is chief of the Infectious Diseases Section in the Department of Transfusion Medicine and an NIH senior associate scientist. Her research focuses on the association of viral hepatitis and cancer and on developing new, improved diagnostic tools for the detection of bloodborne pathogens.

At outset of the pandemic, De Giorgi helped her small lab rapidly pivot to complement the Department of Laboratory Medicine in providing PCR COVID-19 testing for the Clinical Center and, later, all of NIH, a massive undertaking pushed her team to the brink.

"Nobody had a life for two years," she said. "We were all overwhelmed." During that time, her lab produced some 250,000 test results, a six-fold increase. The effort required endless ingenuity to validate new assays, overcome reagent shortages and instruments malfunctions, and try to maintain a healthy and less stressful working environment.

Noting that she felt "so honored and very happy" to receive Becerra's commendation, De Giorgi said she believes the award belongs to her team and the hundreds of people they worked with. "We were all here and all in crisis."

Becerra also recognized the Clinical Center's Debbie Gutierrez, a senior nurse manager in the hospital's patient care unit, 5SE, and the hospital's Special Clinical Studies Unit.

Trained in biocontainment, Gutierrez and her SCSU/5SE colleagues have treated patients infected with Ebola and other highly contagious, lethal viruses.

Early in the pandemic, American tourists were exposed or infected with COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The possibility that the Clinical Center would take over their care, while never realized, "initiated the conversion of our unit into the [CC's] COVID care unit," Gutierrez said.

"From there, it just sort of grew and grew and grew." Gutierrez and her team of 40 nurses would go on to care for all COVID-19 patients and do the physically backbreaking work of screening and testing a widening circle of Clinical Center patients, visitors, and staff.

Gutierrez said the award came as a complete surprise, noting that she hopes others see it as "a recognition of my team and not necessarily me."

"As a leader, you're only as good as your team is, and I think I have the best team here in this whole hospital," the 32-year Clinical Center veteran said. "There were a lot of people here in the hospital who did some phenomenal work, but I think my team did a lot of work for three years that really was above and beyond the call."

- Sean Markey

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