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UW doctor: Wear a mask: Pothof wants to get message out
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UW doctor: Wear a mask: Pothof wants to get message out

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Dr. Jeff Pothof

Dr. Jeff Pothof, a graduate of Randolph High School and now the UW Health Chief Quality Officer and ER/Med Flight physician, is shown sharing COVID-19 information with a local news outlet. 

MADISON – When Jeff Pothof, who grew up in Randolph, goes to the store to get some milk or supplies for a weekend project he wears a face mask.

Not just to protect his wife Christen (who grew up in Markesan), or his daughters Natalie – 9, and Nora – 6. It’s also part of his job as Chief Quality Officer and Emergency Room/Med-Flight Doctor for UW-Health in Madison. In fact, the doctor has recently become a familiar face on Madison news stations, offering insights into the COVID 19 pandemic and its impact around the area and beyond.

In grade and high school he gravitated to science, driven by a desire to understand how things work. In sixth grade he recalls that a Med Flight helicopter stopped at the Randolph Piggly Wiggly grocery store.

“Local civic groups held brat fries every Saturday to raise money and at one point the Randolph EMS group, during EMS Week, had UW Health Med Flight land in the parking lot,” he said. “I saw that crew get out and I remember thinking this must be the coolest job in the entire world. Someday I’d like to go up and fly on UW Med Flight. I remember in college having one of their bumper stickers on my car.”

Fast forward through undergraduate studies at Edgewood College in Madison, EMS service, medical research, UW Med School, specialty training at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and residency in the Emergency Department. Through it all he felt that he wanted to do something more than a doctor working a shift and going home.

“I’ve always wanted to have an impact – to look back at what I’ve done and to have given the biggest benefit to the most people that I could,” he said.

That goal has led to his current position. With the arrival of the pandemic, he and Rick Ransom, President of Madison Area Hospitals, were selected to take charge.

“We all worked together to help figure out what the processes would be to respond to what we thought would be a pandemic that would likely get here,” Pothof said.

He also showed a willingness and skill for sharing information with the press, and quickly became the go-to source for the organization’s best and most current COVID 19 information.

“As time has gone on I’ve gotten to be more comfortable with it and gotten to know some of the people involved,” Pothof said. “I can’t tell you exactly how I’ve become the de factor spokesperson for UW Health, but here I am.”

As the public face of UW Health and its efforts to fight the COVID 19 pandemic, his family’s friends and relatives in Randolph and Markesan can't help but notice. 

“Dr. Jeff Pothof has been a critical part of our COVID-19 response at UW Health,” said Dr. Pete Newcomer, Chief Clinical Officer at UW Health. “He has served in the role of medical branch officer for our hospital’s incident command team and helped guide the organization’s decision-making during this unprecedented time. He is an incredible resource to have on our team. He has also been a powerful, trusted voice in keeping the public informed during this crisis.”

“Jeff’s first press conference about COVID back in February,” said Emily Kumlien, UW Health Media Relations Strategist. “He said people need to wash their hands for 20 minutes (instead of 20 seconds). He immediately corrected himself but we tease him about it. I joke with him, ‘Look how far you have come.’ He really is a media superstar. He is down to earth and very personable with reporters. He is honest and answers the questions in a way people can understand. The media appreciates his candor and transparency. It’s like talking to your next door neighbor. COVID-19 is ever changing and we try to keep the public informed to the best of our ability.”

He has been equally candid about the need to wear face masks.

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“Initially our thoughts were that if you’re healthy you don’t gain a lot of benefit by wearing a mask,” he said. “In fact there is a lot of detriment because you’re touching your face, and hands were thought to be the most likely means of transmission. That has changed because now we know that most people are spreading COVID 19 before they feel sick. Now we can’t say if you feel fine you don’t need to wear a mask because people who feel fine may actually be spreading the virus.”

He continued, “Earlier we kind of thought that you had to cough or sneeze or at least clear your throat to expel enough droplets to infect someone. Now we know that all you really have to do is talk. That’s where the recommendation to wear a mask all the time came from, because it will reduce transmission.”

Pothof practices what he preaches.

“I feel like I can’t tell people to do it and not do it myself, so there’s a credibility issue there,” he said. “Following the guidelines if I’m in a public place or if I’m going to go to Fleet Farm and get something you’ll never see me there unmasked. If I’m sitting here alone in my office and no one is coming in I’ll take it off because there’s no great risk of getting sick. If I’m out on a boat fishing alone or it’s just me and my family the mask is off because that’s OK.”

He said, “I don’t just wear it to wear it, but in situations where I know it protects me, or would protect other people in case I was positive, yeah I wear it. I just think it’s the right thing to do.”

Pothof says it’s unfortunate that masks have become politicized — differentiating strong people versus weak people, or someone who likes his/her freedom versus someone who doesn’t.

“It’s none of that,” he said. “It’s a biological threat. It’s toxic.”

Other best practices are also crucial and must continue until a cure is found.

“Probably the most important one is physical or social distancing — that you keep six feet of separation between you and other people,” said Pothof. “That’s obviously not practical when you’re at home with your family, but it can be applied with other people, especially if it’s going to be for an extended period of time.”

Another preventive measure is hygiene; washing hands frequently, keeping surfaces clean and coughing or sneezing into your elbow.

“Those are the things people can do from a public health standpoint,” Pothof said. “Testing also helps us to locate and isolate cases, and we’ve come a long way in insuring that tests are available for those who wish to have them.”

Although he is the picture of success, he is as humble as his hometown roots have taught him to be.

“I don’t see myself as a whole lot different than the people I grew up with,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky in my opportunities, and am really blessed to be doing something that’s really cool.”

“I don’t just wear it to wear it (a mask), but in situations where I know it protects me, or would protect other people in case I was positive, yeah I wear it. I just think it’s the right thing to do.”
Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health Chief Quality Officer and Emergency Room/Med-Flight physician

“I don’t just wear it to wear it (a mask), but in situations where I know it protects me, or would protect other people in case I was positive, yeah I wear it. I just think it’s the right thing to do.”

Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health Chief Quality Officer and Emergency Room/Med-Flight physician

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