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COVID-19 Case Spike Stretches Medical Resources In Wisconsin

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we have a Wisconsin physician on the line with us this morning. Jeffrey Pothof is an emergency room doctor in Madison, Wis., also chief of quality at the University of Wisconsin Health. He joins us on Skype. Doctor, thanks for your time this morning.

JEFFREY POTHOF: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Just listening to those voices from others in your state, the exhaustion, the feeling of not knowing what's next - I mean, does that all resonate with you and what you're seeing at your facility?

POTHOF: Yeah, I can relate with that. You know, early on in the pandemic, we put a lot of plans in place. And then we were fortunate enough to be able to put those away for a while. We had COVID cases, but they weren't overwhelming. Things were going OK. And then everything changed. And now we are the next hot spot. And that's been so challenging for all of our staff who have been at this for so long now.

GREENE: Yeah, what is the situation? I mean, do you have the resources and the staffing you need right now to get through this? Or are you just at a point where you're trying to to ramp back up again to deal with this outbreak?

POTHOF: Yeah, you know, we have these plans in place. And certainly, we're able to kind of convert some of our clinical space into COVID space and kind of move back and forth with that. Our supplies aren't too bad right now. Staffing is probably the biggest constraint in that it's one of the things that we as a health system just can't create by investing more money or more time. And, you know, we're running short of critical care nurses, critical care physicians for patients that need them because they have COVID-19 and they're in one of our issues.

GREENE: You know, I mentioned that rural Wisconsin is experiencing the brunt of this right now. How is your hospital involved in these outbreaks in more rural areas?

POTHOF: Yeah. So at the University of Wisconsin - there just aren't that many, you know, large academic medical centers in the state. So it's not unusual for hospitals across the state to kind of exceed the medical, you know, capability of their institution and then look to us to take their patient as one of the few academic centers in the state. So, you know, we're based in Madison, Wis., but a lot of our patients come from other places in the state so that we can meet their medical needs. We're just a little bit more of a rural state.

GREENE: So they're being like medevaced in? You're seeing patients come from hours away?

POTHOF: Yeah, I work on the medevac program. And we do have protocols in place that allow us to fly in critically ill patients from around the state here to Madison so that we can take care of them.

GREENE: Is there a story or image from inside your ICU in recent weeks that might help us understand kind of just what you're seeing and experiencing?

POTHOF: Yeah, there's one that really hit me that I have a hard time forgetting about. You know, and it's not about, you know, complex care or something fancy we did. But, you know, we had a husband and wife couple who were sick from COVID-19. And they weren't doing well. And you can imagine the hospital's full. Every bed is full. But the staff went through tremendous effort to get them next to each other, so for those final moments, they could be next to each other. And that was just something touching. And I think a lot of people don't see that. They don't see sick people with COVID, but we do. And that was just a really powerful moment.

GREENE: I hate to ask this - I mean, you said final moments. Did either of them make it?

POTHOF: Yeah, one one of them didn't make it.

GREENE: That's really sad. I guess it was good that at least they could be together, though.

POTHOF: Yeah. I mean, I think those are the important things in life. It's the relationships that you have and, you know, the people that you know - that that's what's important at the end, not necessarily your position in life or or your political views. At the end, it really comes down to relationships.

GREENE: Does this feel like deja vu? Does it feel like some of the very things you went through in the in the beginning of this pandemic? Or is this something different and new?

POTHOF: Yeah, it's a little bit different. You know, we thought we were going to have this early in the surge. We have a lot of colleagues in New York. We were talking with them. We knew what they were going through. We were getting ready for that. And then, you know, at that point, stay-at-home orders came out. Some different guidance came out. And our curve flattened in Wisconsin. So for a couple months, we thought, you know what? Maybe we're going to do OK with this. And now we're not. Now we're busier than we've ever been. We've got more COVID patients in our hospital than we've ever had. So, you know, we're in new territory. This isn't something we've had to deal with in Wisconsin.

GREENE: Dr. Jeffrey Pothof at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. You know, we'll be thinking about you and all the patients you serve. Thanks for everything you're doing.

POTHOF: You guys have a good day.

GREENE: You too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.