Doctors reflect on COVID-19 medical challenges and breakthroughs 1 year later

NOW: Doctors reflect on COVID-19 medical challenges and breakthroughs 1 year later

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The pandemic has hit health care over the past year, providing unthought of challenges and medical breakthroughs. Doctors say the lessons learned this last year have made them more confident in treating people with COVID-19, but we’ve only still scratched the surface in dealing with this virus.

Dr. John Raymond, with the Medical College of Wisconsin, says on January 11, 2020 the original COVID-19 virus was sequenced and shared with the world. It opened the door to COVID-19 research that’s led to discoveries to better control, treat and come up with a vaccine.

“I really do believe that we’re going to be faced with other pandemic challenges in the very near future, and shame on us if we don’t learn lessons from this pandemic,” said Dr. John Raymond, president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

As we reflect back on this past year, doctors say one of the greatest accomplishments since the pandemic began is the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines. Now, more than 2 million vaccines administered in Wisconsin.

“I think this is noteworthy, you know the usual timeframe for developing a vaccine and getting approval in the U.S. is on the order of 12 years,” adds Dr. Raymond.

I mean it’s similar to putting a man on the moon, the speed by which that occurred, without cutting corners and being safe and effective,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer at UW Health.

Doctors say the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna has been around since the 1990s, but this pandemic has created the possibility of now using mRNA to create vaccines for other diseases.

It’s relatively mature, but what was lacking up to this point was a mass produced marketed product,” Dr. Raymond says.

“It really opens up a lot of opportunity for this technology to be used not only to curb future variants of COVID-19, but also to address other diseases that we maybe weren’t able to create vaccines for,” Dr. Pothof said.

The pandemic has also taught doctors to work together globally and locally. Even rival companies like Merck and Johnson & Johnson have joined together to ramp up vaccine manufacturing.

“The health systems in Southeastern Wisconsin meet regularly now to collaborate in an unprecedented and actually more effective way than we’ve ever done before,” adds Dr. Raymond.

“From not having any experience treating people with this disease, to tremendous wealth of experience and knowledge that’s been shared across the world and a handful of medications that now prove to be effective,” Dr. Pothof says.

In March 2020, doctors were able to follow which treatments worked in severe COVID-19 cases after seeing sharp spikes in China, Italy and New York.

“Interventions that we do for severe respiratory failure and acute respiratory distress syndrome were found to be ineffective and potentially harmful to COVID-19 patients,” Dr. Raymond said.

In one year’s time, doctors are seeing a reduction in death rates. Dr. Raymond says early on, the mortality rate was more than 15-percent,  and now it’s under 2-percent in the U.S. Treatments like monoclonal antibodies, convalescent plasma and corticosteroids have all played a part.

“Only modestly effective on its own though, and must be used at the right time and on the right type of patient, so I want to stress—we still need better therapeutics,” he says.

“We’re better prepared to take care of patients with severe COVID,” said Dr. Pothof. “Not that we wish that upon anyone, but we’re very good at taking care of it at this point.”

Doctors say the pandemic has also highlighted the need to take care of racial, economic and ethnic disparities in health care.

Those disparities hurt all of us and they’ve been highlighted very fiercely by COVID-19,” Dr. Raymond adds. “We need to address them with intentionality going forward.”

This year has also exposed some unique challenges with getting out accurate information about COVID-19.

“Misinformation and disinformation have been a challenge for us and it’s been exacerbated by our fractious political climate in the country,” said Dr. Raymond.

The medical world has also has been forced to do things differently, having to incorporate telehealth more than ever.

“I feel like, you know, that’s out of the gate and that will forever be with us, it’s a much more convenient way for people to get health care needs met,” Dr. Pothof says.

While the COVID-19 health care industry has made great progress, there’s still much to be learned this upcoming year, with variants emerging and the need to step up sequencing and testing.

“Increased ability to sequence individuals that come down with COVID to understand how quickly is it mutating, and what kind of mutations are conferring benefit to the virus?” adds Dr. Pothof.

Home or workplace testing, and less invasive testing possibly, using saliva rather than a nasal swab,” Dr. Raymond said.

For now, case numbers are looking promising. Wisconsin reached nearly 8,000 new confirmed cases on Nov. 18, 2020. Now, the seven-day average as of Tuesday sits at 439 cases with a 2.1-percent test positivity rate, but doctors say case counts still need to be lower, more than 70-percent of people must be vaccinated and we need to have a better understanding of new strain.

If we just get too overeager and we say you know what, I’m just going to go back to normal, then we risk the chance of, you know, moving back and having to reinstate some of these restrictions,” Dr. Pothof said.

Even with a long way to go, Dr. Raymond says with careful consideration, there’s a glimmer of hope that we can begin to go back to normal this year and eventually put this pandemic behind us.

“I hope that our children can resume school activities safely and that we can begin carefully in stages to resume some of the normal activities that we enjoyed before the pandemic,” he adds.

“The big thing looking forward to, maybe not even necessarily in medicine, is the idea that we won’t necessarily have to wear masks all the time, we won’t have to avoid people,” says Dr. Pothof.

Doctors say in all of this, it’s important to trust the science. They believe COVID-19 will be with us forever but it’ll likely be less deadly and we may need annual booster shots like we do the flu.

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