From the Dean: The wrong direction

As you are aware, the COVID-19 numbers for North Dakota (and Grand Forks County) are headed in the decidedly wrong direction. While I’d much rather have North Dakota and UND in the news because of the great things that are happening in our educational and research programs, our situation is attracting national and international attention. Earlier this week, for example, I was interviewed both by a Canadian news station and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes regarding our COVID-19 increases. Both local and state leaders are fully engaged and active in trying to deal with the surge in cases. For example, Fargo Mayor Dr. Tim Mahoney, who received some of his medical training here at the UND SMHS, earlier this week issued a mask mandate for the city, the first such action in the state. But more needs to be done if we are going to stem the tide of this wave and prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed. I can assure you that the School and UND are doing everything we can to try to keep our students, faculty, and staff safe while trying to continue our vital missions in the face of very disturbing pandemic numbers.

Fortunately, there were some positive developments this week. First of all, the interim Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee voted to recommend that lawmakers be required to wear face coverings and get tested for COVID-19 twice per week when attending the legislative session that is to begin in January 2021. I had been asked to answer questions of the Committee this past Wednesday prior to the vote and following my meeting with them I was pleased with the Committee’s positive response to the challenges of the pandemic.

Additionally, I was delighted to be reminded again that academic prowess and success seem to run in certain families. Maylynn Riding In Warne, a Ph.D. student in UND’s Educational Foundations and Research program (who is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and wife of our own Dr. Donald Warne), has been selected to participate in one of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s leadership programs. These programs connect changemakers across the country—from every profession and field—to help them learn from and work with one another in creating more just and thriving communities. Ms. Riding In Warne was selected for the Health Policy Research Scholars program that is designed for doctoral students from historically marginalized backgrounds and underrepresented populations. As a member of the program’s newest cohort, she will focus on the development and evaluation of health education materials.

Finally, our educational and research programs are moving forward despite the pandemic. In ongoing discussions with our students, I’ve been impressed by their perseverance in the face of the challenges. But students do report feelings of isolation and disconnectedness. Some, for example, come into the building in Grand Forks to study so that they can break the monotony and isolation associated with studying alone at home or in their apartments. We are doing what we can to try to keep students connected.

To that end, the phrase that I use frequently is that the pandemic requires us to practice physical but not social distancing. And as I also say frequently, please do what you can to help us turn these numbers around—in addition to practicing physical distancing, wash your hands frequently, get tested as appropriate, and please mask-up, which the evidence shows can reduce the spread of infection.

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