From the Dean: Physical—not social—distancing

We are obviously in very different space than we were one short month ago. On Feb. 27, 2020, Susan and I were on a several-day break out in Big Sky, Mont. Today we are hunkered down in University House, practicing social distancing, and we’ve been without direct close personal contact with another person in the past two weeks. That’s been both good and bad.

The good part—actually, the vitally important part for all of us—is that practicing strict social distancing now and for the foreseeable future will help in three ways: first, it will reduce the likelihood of contracting or transmitting the virus; second, as a consequence, it will “flatten the curve” of new cases of COVID-19 virus here in North Dakota and elsewhere so our health care systems do not become overwhelmed as they have been in New York City, northern Italy and elsewhere; and third, it will allow further time to ramp up the availability of testing for the virus and production of more personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care works and ventilators for patients.

It is critical for North Dakotans and others in regions without large numbers of documented COVID-19 cases so far to not become complacent. We will see a significant increase in caseload here, even if we’re going to lag the coasts. But make no mistake about it, the surge is coming. So please, please, please continue to be obsessive about social distancing, handwashing and other common-sense public health recommendations. And if you are not doing these things, please start now! There really is no time to spare (think New York). Please remember, if you take these precautions, you are protecting not only yourself, but your family, friends and neighbors as well.

Social distancing is hard, and can lead to isolation and depression—that’s the really bad part. So UND and the SMHS have been trying to stay connected with our faculty, staff and students in a variety of ways. We’ve tried to use virtual connections on the Internet to keep our UND family aware of what’s going on. The UND website is full of important information about our response to the virus. On Tuesday of this week, UND hosted two well-attended Zoom conferences, one for faculty and staff and the other for students. UND’s senior leadership team tried to answer as many questions as we could in each one-hour time slot. But additional questions and answers can be seen here.

During those conferences, I stressed that “social distancing” should better be termed “physical distancing.” It should not suggest that we forgo those crucial social interactions that help make life meaningful. We just have to engage in the interactions in a different manner—typically virtually. Susan and I have “met” with our grandchildren frequently during the past two weeks, albeit on FaceTime. Not nearly as good as hugging them, to be sure, but better than nothing. So be careful to practice physical distancing, but remember to keep others close—by telephone, video link or just waving to your neighbor. The videos of neighbors in Italy singing opera segments together while perched in their windows and balconies is the right idea. Stay connected and close emotionally—just not physically. Oh, one more thing, turning off the 24-hour news and its incessant COVID-19 reporting and doing some routine exercise instead (perhaps utilizing one of many Zoom-based exercise classes) goes a long way to reduce anxiety and stress.

Stay in and stay well.

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Interim President and Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences