One Year Later: Meet the doctor behind UW Health’s COVID-19 response

RANDOLPH, Wis. — This week marked the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring the coronavirus a worldwide pandemic.

It’s been a year of learning as we go for health officials. The doctor leading UW Health’s COVID-19 response is Dr. Jeff Pothof, the Chief Quality Officer at UW Health.

Over the past year, Wisconsin residents have seen Dr. Pothof everywhere in the media offering information and advice on the pandemic. “It’s really been about this is what we know and this is what we want you to know to keep your family safe,” Pothof said.

Dr. Pothof’s calm, straight talk in a crisis earned him a huge following. When the pandemic worsened around Thanksgiving, news outlets across the country took notice. “There would be a block of time where we could carve out maybe two hours pf the day and, it would be one after the other. We would do double digit news interviews per day” he said.  That’s in addition to Dr. Pothof’s responsibilities as a Medflight and emergency medicine physician at UW Health.

Dr. Pothof has appeared on The CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, MSNBC, The Today Show and dozens of news outlets around the country and the world. “People needed to know. There’s just so much unknown and this is a really scary thing,” he said.

Dr. Pothof grew up in the small Columbia County community of Randolph, population 1,800. The parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store where Jeff worked as a teenager is the place where Dr. Potfhof was first inspired by a career in medicine.

“We used to have EMS week in Randolph when I was a kid,” he said. “There would be a tent and a brat fest. That’s a common thing in small towns. One year, they had UW Medflight come and land in the parking lot. I was getting my brat with my mom and dad and when that helicopter came in, I was just awestruck,” he said.

Dr. Pothof attended medical school at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. “Now, I’m that guy that gets out of the helicopter in a flight suit taking care of sick people” he said. “I feel really blessed that I’ve been able to have that opportunity.”

Jeff’s parents John and Pat Pothof still live in the Randolph home where they raised Jeff and his two siblings, brother Jason and sister Paula. “We are incredibly proud of Jeff.” Pat said.

The community of Randolph is equally proud of Dr. Pothof  and keeps the family informed when they see him on TV. “People stop us or call and say, “we saw your son on television. We’re so proud of him and please tell him we’re thinking of him and supporting his efforts,” Pat said.

Dr. Pothof currently lives in Waunakee with wife Christen and their two daughters, 10-year old Natalie and 6-year old Nora. Natalie says she would like to grow up to be a Medflight doctor just like her dad.

Dr. Pothof says he’s cautiously optimist the pandemic is easing and calls the vaccines a “man on the moon type moment.”

“I’ve had enough people tell me they’ve been relieved to hear what I tell them,” Dr. Pothof said. “They feel like they can trust it. It’s good information. I’m not trying to pull a fast one on them. There’s no kind of ulterior motive. I just want them to be able to make good decisions.”