From the Dean: We are far from helpless

We are now fewer than three weeks from the official start of the fall semester at UND, although our freshman medical students have been attending class virtually for the past month. And even as we continue to strive to keep our facilities as uncongested as possible from a staff and faculty occupancy standpoint, some employees who had their hours reduced or who were working remotely are now returning to the campuses. Critical to the success of the UND Smart Restart plan will be the enthusiastic cooperation of all involved – students, faculty and staff. UND has extensive mitigation procedures in effect, the key being to limit those factors that are known to facilitate the spread of the disease. What are those key factors for this largely air-borne illness? Indoors versus outdoors; proximity versus distance; and prolonged exposure versus brief. So keeping the density of people inside a building to a minimum, along with physical distancing and masks and keeping face-to-face contact to a minimum and for the shortest time period possible, should be our goals.

Furthermore, in addition to rigorous attention to hand washing and cleaning of environmental surfaces, early identification of those harboring the virus will be critical. After all, over a third of people with COVID-19 don’t have symptoms, so there is no way to identify them short of testing. Once identified, these individuals can be isolated so they don’t spread the disease and their contacts traced so they too can be placed in quarantine and thus prevent a “hot spot” from developing. Accordingly, wide-spread testing for students (along with faculty and staff) will be available through the North Dakota Department of Health here in Grand Forks and at multiple locations throughout North Dakota. The testing is at no cost to the individual or their insurance company, and no specific doctor’s order is required. Just pre-register online, show up and you’re good to go!

Given the troubling trend of an increasing number of new cases in North Dakota and the Midwest, I’d really urge students in particular to get tested before they come to campus. The problem with this pandemic is that many of the warning indicators of a major outbreak occur relatively late (such as when ICU bed capacity is being strained), when mitigation efforts may well be too late. So please help us to contain this scourge by following UND recommendations regarding personal behavior (masks, handwashing, distancing) and testing — both inside and outside the classroom.

There are any number of encouraging signs on the horizon that indicate we may be able to get control of this pandemic over the next six months or so, including expanded testing options, antibody and other pharmaceuticals, convalescent plasma treatments, and vaccines. But none of them is assured, and we will regret it if we let our guard down too early. Even here in North Dakota, we know from our widespread testing that almost one in 100 of us has had the disease, and the true number may be closer to one in 10. And COVID-19 has resulted in the deaths of almost 2 percent (about 16 out of 1,000) of those infected. Compare that with the usual mortality of influenza, that typically results in mortality of about 1 in 1,000 – almost 16 times less!

The bottom line is that if the UND Smart Restart is to be successful and allow the modified return to campus that is envisioned, it will require the demonstration of citizenship and altruism by all of us. After all, the main reason I wear a mask (when appropriate) is less to protect me and much more to protect you. So let’s be thoughtful of our colleagues, neighbors, and friends, and do the right both on and off campus.

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