From the Dean: Getting ready for students’ return amid COVID-19

The virtual events we held last Friday for the incoming medical student Class of 2024 and their families went very well indeed by all accounts. As is my traditional role, I oversaw the Friday case wrap-up where the entire class “meets” (this year virtually) with the patient whose case history they have been learning from all week. The patient now is a college student but was a youngster when he developed a serious infection in his ankle. Fortunately, he has recovered essentially completely, but he and his parents are extremely gracious and generous in spending time with the incoming class of medical students year after year so that the students can better appreciate the impact of injury and illness on patients and families alike. As always, it was a very satisfying experience for all – and the patient and his family have been helping us with this exercise for over a decade!

Following the case wrap-up, we had Family Day events to better orient students and their families to what the next four years will be like. This event also was virtual, and we had over 140 computers signed in, some with more than one participant. So, in addition to the 70 medical students, we had a similar number of family member computers signed in, for a total number of participants likely in the range of 160 people. I think that the highlight of the day for most of us was when we all – doctors and students alike – swore (or re-swore) the Oath of Hippocrates, the traditional pledge that doctors make to society and the profession. Even though it was virtual, it still was a moving experience – and I’ve been re-swearing the oath many times since I graduated from medical school! Staff from the School who were watching said that the expressions on the faces of the students were quite impressive and spoke to their commitment to their new profession and their future patients. A nice and positive experience to be sure – even virtually!

The big challenge ahead is the return to campus of the rest of UND’s students late in August, and the School’s transition to in-person instruction around the same time. It will be a challenge because of the worrisome trends in COVID-19 cases around the country, and even in North Dakota. As you may know, I’ve been asked by North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott to chair a system-wide task force to help the 11-member campuses in the North Dakota University System (NDUS) prepare for in-person instruction for the fall semester that begins in August. Called the NDUS Smart Restart Task Force, we have representation from faculty, staff and students from various campuses, as well as from the system office and the State Board of Higher Education. A major focus has been to collate all campuses’ COVID-related policies and procedures in a central library available to all NDUS institutions. Another has been to ensure system-wide testing of students (along with faculty and staff) who are returning to campus. The North Dakota Department of Health just announced a rather expansive testing schedule for the summer that will be open to all NDUS students, faculty, staff and community members as well. Further details are available here and here. I hope that as many students as possible avail themselves of this opportunity, as identifying potentially asymptomatic carriers of the COVID-19 virus and then tracing and quarantining their contacts is one of our more potent weapons to limit the spread of the disease.

Finally, I’ve really been enjoying my part-time and temporary position as Chief Health Strategist for the state. The leadership group I’ve assembled for this undertaking – to formulate a health strategy for the state that will result in North Dakotans being the healthiest people in the country – is made up of extremely thoughtful, knowledgeable and committed individuals who have managed to find some time in their busy schedules for this effort. We are interviewing a spectrum of national thought leaders in the health and health care space, and these discussions have been valuable, thought-proving, and productive. But we sure have our work cut out for us – Governor Burgum expects a fully vetted health strategy plan from us by the end of this calendar year – a mere five and a half months from now!

Despite the time crunch, I’m confident we can produce an excellent plan, just as I’m confident that North Dakotans of all backgrounds will continue to help keep our state’s COVID-19 cases relatively low by washing hands often, wearing masks especially when indoors or near others, and practicing physical distancing. But remember – that doesn’t mean social distancing; please stay connected with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

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