‘If you’re fully vaccinated, the pandemic for the most part is over for you’: Why top docs are hopeful hospitalizations reach pandemic lows

MADISON, Wis. – Nearly seven months after COVID-19 hospitalizations reached a record high in Dane County, the results of a targeted mass-vaccination effort have pushed numbers as low as they’ve been since the pandemic began.

For the first time since November, News 3 crews were given an inside look into COVID care at one of Dane County’s largest hospitals.

Fortunately, our numbers have dramatically improved. We’re so grateful for that,” said UW Health Hospitalist Dr. Ann Sheehy. “I think we’re all optimistic that the worst is behind us.”

Currently, 22 people are in hospitalized with COVID in Dane County – down from a 7-day average of more than 160 in November.

Now, the majority of patients coming in are younger people who have waited to get the vaccine or made the decision not to.

We are seeing younger patients coming with COVID,” Sheehy said. “We’re seeing a lot of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.”

Still, it’s far from what the hospital was dealing with at COVID’s peak in Wisconsin.

We were really close to that breaking point back then,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof. “We didn’t know how it was going to turn out, if we were going to have enough room…We narrowly escaped having a situation where we’d be taking care of COVID patients and likely non-COVID patients in spaces that were jerry-rigged.”

With the low numbers, the hospital is returning to things it had to cancel during the pandemic’s worst moments: Visitors are back for patients, as well are elective surgeries.

While doctors remain optimistic, the refusal for some to get vaccinated means new cases are still rolling in.

“It’s tragic when we see someone who could have gotten vaccinated and didn’t, and now they’re sick with COVID, because those patients can still suffer adverse consequences of the illness,” Dr. Sheehy said. “Our only incentive is that we want people to survive this pandemic. We have no political agenda. We hope that people will continue to believe us. I was vaccinated in December. 6 months later, I have no side effects. I hope people will continue to see this is safe and effective.”

Sheehy says in addition to hospital life returning to normal, she has also allowed elements of her own life to return to normal.

The most meaningful thing to me has just been being able to have dinner with my parents, and hug my parents, and not being worried about giving them COVID,” she said. 

If you’re fully vaccinated, the pandemic for the most part is over for you,” Pothof said. “You can take that mask off. You can be in public. You can interact with others without that worry in your mind, ‘Am I going to get COVID? Is something bad going to happen to me or someone I love’?”

Pothof says he’s hopeful by the fall, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be cleared for children ages 2-12. By 2022, he says it’s possible they could receive full FDA approval.

We’re going to emerge triumphant from this pandemic, we’re almost there,” he said. 

Both doctors say this would not be possible without Dane County’s vaccination efforts – the highest in the state.

We were in a bad spot,” Pothof said. “People did what we needed them to do, now we’re getting vaccinated and life is going to return to normal.”