From the Dean: The path forward

We’re just short of eight months into this pandemic and all of us have to be asking: Is this ever going to end? My last “normal” day was on Friday, March 13, of all days. Talk about bad luck! Since then, Susan and I haven’t been able to visit two of our grandkids or their parents. Accordingly, all of our meetings, patient-care encounters and almost all of our other interactions are virtual; we go to stores very infrequently and even then at off-hours. I’m sure this routine is similar for you.

But what has sustained UND and the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences through it all has been the creativity, persistence, hard work and adaptability of our faculty, staff and students. We certainly would be in a much worse place were it not for your efforts. So to all of you, I want to say a sincere thank you!

That being said, the pandemic is running its predictable course and likely will be getting worse over the next several months. So what’s the answer to my question? How (and will) the pandemic end? I do think it will end, but likely not for another year or so. There really only are four ways for a pandemic like this to end (or at least recede): 1) the virus mutates into a more benign and less infectious form (no evidence of this so far); 2) more effective treatments become available (there is some encouraging news in this regard, but no “game-changers” at this time); 3) herd immunity develops through natural infection (but remember that 60-70% of the population would need to get COVID-19 for herd immunity to have any effect, which would also put even more strain on hospital resources and increase deaths); and 4) a vaccine is developed and widely deployed in the state. A vaccine clearly is the most desirable option, but one that likely won’t be fully in place until the third quarter of 2021, if all goes according to plan.

What do we do until then? We likely are a third of the way through this mess. So the good news is that we are a third of the way through it; the bad news is that we have two-thirds to go. So–what to do until then? The answer: Don’t let our guard down! This is a very nasty bug, especially for the elderly and vulnerable. As UND President Armacost recently noted, we all have a civic and even moral duty to protect our fellow citizens who are in higher-risk categories. Let’s all follow the 3 W’s: Wash your hands, Watch your distance and Wear your mask as appropriate. And we should do this whether we are on the UND campus or off. We have clear guidelines from UND, and all of us need to follow them conscientiously and carefully. I expect you to do so; you can expect me to do so as well. It is not appropriate for any of us to make up our own rules when the lives of our friends and family are at stake.

One of the big challenges all of us face (and especially those of us in the health professions) is the barrage of information–some correct and some not–that can overwhelm us. It’s tough for us to stay up to date on the latest scientific data, and to separate fact from fiction. Fortunately, there are many impartial and reliable sources that provide ongoing updates from the research literature, such as those compiled by the journal Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00502-w) and by the Journal of the American Medical Association (https://jamanetwork.com/collections/46099/coronavirus-covid19).

I often talk about the special social bond health professionals and people who work with them have with society. Society grants us exceptional deference, power and authority. But in turn, society has very high expectations of us. Let’s all be sure that we are meeting those performance expectations. I know that all of you are up to it. Let’s do all those simple things that will help us get better control of this pandemic as we wait for the vaccine: wash your hands, watch your distance, and wear your mask as appropriate. Along with the 3 W’s, remember to avoid large gatherings, fully comply with any quarantine or isolation orders, try to do as much work or study as possible remotely and–very importantly–remember that we need to keep physically but not socially distanced. Stay in touch with friends, colleagues, fellow students, family and others–just do it virtually. Here are some suggested ways to stay connected and reduce COVID-19 fatigue:

  • Secure time for reflection, to catch up on email and to plan.
  • Honor the lunch hour: you need to do self-care and eat healthful meals.
  • Check your email only two or three times daily rather than throughout the day.
  • Send notes to people to thank them for special actions or improvements; small touches like this mean a lot to people.

Working together, we can get through this–together!

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