Being a doctor during COVID-19: ‘More knowledge, less fear’

RCH’s Jason Popp: ‘I don't want to see even one more person lost’

Jeff Helfrich
Posted 6/24/21

“What we try to do is educate people by showing them the studies and what backs it up,” Popp said. “I'm hoping we can raise the vaccination amounts using good information. I know it's never going to be 100 percent. But the more we can do to protect people, the better."

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Being a doctor during COVID-19: ‘More knowledge, less fear’

RCH’s Jason Popp: ‘I don't want to see even one more person lost’


ROCHELLE — When describing what he’s learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, Rochelle Community Hospital Dr. Jason Popp called back on a mantra coined by former Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon the year after the team’s world series win. 

“The next year he said, 'Now we just have to remember, don't get comfortable. Be comfortable being uncomfortable,'” Popp said. “Hopefully that will help us."

Popp believes one of the things everyone should learn from the pandemic is preparedness, in or out of the healthcare field. There were many aspects of COVID-19 that shined a light on areas of unpreparedness, Popp said. He called it a “smack in the face” and thinks the country will be prepared for years until people start to forget what it was like. 

“We had decades of no pandemic and people started to say, 'It's probably not going to happen here,'” Popp said. “Whereas realistically, you knew it had to. We grew a little bit comfortable. And it's good to be reminded not to be too comfortable.”

Specializing in family medicine, Popp has spent the last 15 months treating and learning about COVID-19. He took to RCH’s YouTube channel and made informational videos about the virus. He did part of a video with the Illinois Hospital Association for its Unity in Immunity campaign. 

Popp made those videos because he believes they can be beneficial for people and their health. He likened it to someone with home repair skills making how-to videos for those that are less familiar. 

“I figure, well it's my job to take the information I know and try to share that with other people,” Popp said. “The most important thing is to try to present this information in a way that doesn't try to come down on people that are starting at a different point. If somebody is afraid of vaccines, I'm not going to be a person that is trying to make them feel bad. I just want to educate them.”

Popp told his patients before the vaccine rollout that if they saw him getting the vaccine along with the people in his family whom he loves, that they’ll know he thinks it’s OK. And that’s what happened. 

One of Popp’s chief missions currently at the hospital is trying to get as many people vaccinated as possible. He said the current COVID-19 climate is a “good starting point” to finally put the pandemic to bed. He wants to avoid a fall and winter spike like last year. The vaccine is key to that. 

Fighting social media misinformation related to COVID-19 and the vaccine is something that he feels is a responsibility for himself, RCH and health organizations. 

“What we try to do is educate people by showing them the studies and what backs it up,” Popp said. “I'm hoping we can raise the vaccination amounts using good information. I know it's never going to be 100 percent. But the more we can do to protect people, the better."

Popp thinks the question of just how vaccinated the population needs to be is “complicated.” Top health officials guess it might have to get to around 70-80 percent. There isn’t much data to go on when using this type of vaccine to combat a virus like COVID-19, he said. 

The vaccinated population has been “very lucky” so far with variants of COVID-19 not becoming resistant to it, Popp said. He’s worried that could eventually happen and bring mitigations and guidelines back. 

Right now, the Delta COVID-19 variant is a fear of health officials. That variant is currently making another wave in the United Kingdom and is becoming more present in the United States, Popp said. Health officials believe the vaccine is effective against the Delta variant, but they fear for the unvaccinated. 

In a way, advocating for the vaccine is Popp’s way of trying to get less people into the hospital. 

“Because if less people get sick, then less people come into the hospital,” Popp said. “It sounds stupid, but we're trying not to have business. We don't want people in the emergency room with COVID-19. I don't want to see them on the medical floor with COVID-19. I wish it was done. I wish I never had to admit somebody with COVID-19 again. That would be great."

Popp enjoys being a small town physician at RCH because it creates challenges and allows him to try to elevate his capabilities while providing the best care he can for the population. Those with serious COVID-19 complications usually had needs that required them to be transferred from RCH to a larger facility. 

Part of RCH’s expertise has been to realize when those needs go beyond what it can provide, Popp said. He believes RCH improved to and has stayed at a “cutting-edge” level in dealing with the pandemic. 

“I did a lot of studying with this because I knew with this pandemic, the hospitals were going to fill up,” Popp said. “My job was to try to elevate my knowledge of COVID-19 far beyond any of the infectious disease processes with the previous SARS viruses so that I could provide the best care for people. I think I did a pretty good job with that.”

As far as expecting something like a pandemic to happen during his career, Popp said he never really thought twice about it. He recalls seeing the first SARS viruses in Asia and later in the Middle East. He said he realized the seriousness then, but pushed it to the back burner with it not yet making an appearance in the U.S. 

Popp called the virus making it stateside a “surprise” and “scary.”

“All you can do is the same thing you do if there's an emergency situation in the public, on the medical floor, in the emergency room and you just approach things step-by-step,” Popp said. “You have your training for it, and you rely on your training. You don't end up having anxiety get in the way, because this is what you're supposed to do. This is what you're trained to do."

The most vivid memory of the pandemic for Popp was uncertainty of how COVID-19 was transmitted. Early last year upon coming home from work, Popp would change clothes in his garage before going inside. He bought an ultraviolet C-band to kill germs. He didn’t want to pass on COVID-19 to his family, including his young child. 

“That was the scariest part for me,” Popp said. “Then over time we started to learn that passage really didn't happen that much by touch. And then we learned more about passage through aerosolized particles and as we grow with our knowledge, you find that fear falls. That's the same with anything. More knowledge, less fear. That's what I'm hoping we can continue to do with COVID-19.”

Popp said he’s fortunate that he didn’t have health issues that would’ve made him more susceptible to COVID-19. He also is at a lower-risk age. But, he said it was still scary. “A lot of faith” helped him work through it. 

Those that have thanked the “front line” workers like Popp and the rest of the RCH staff are appreciated, Popp said. But he doesn’t want the rest of the essential workers that were exposed to COVID-19 in the community while doing their jobs to go unnoticed. 

And then there’s the population that Popp doesn’t want to see forgotten. The same population he doesn’t want to see grow. 

“I don't want to see even one more person lost,” Popp said. “I know it's going to happen across the country. But for my own area, if we can do something to keep one more person from getting lost, that's what we're fighting for. 

“And also, I would say to all of the people out there who have lost somebody, we have not forgotten those people. I remember every person that I knew that was lost to COVID-19 and that is why we continue to fight forward."