From the Dean: Some promising news

In this depressing SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) era, it’s good to share some positive and potentially important recent information. A study from Iceland published in last week’s edition of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine looked at the antibody response (the protective proteins that the body makes after exposure to an infectious agent like the SARS-CoV-2 virus) of about 15% of the island’s total population. The authors found that about 1% of people in Iceland had contracted the virus, although the study was done early in the pandemic and undoubtedly the percentage is higher now. In contrast, we now are up to over 6% of the population in North Dakota.

One of the reassuring findings of the study, though, was that there was little or no evidence of the disease in subjects not identified as contacts of people with the disease in the two hot-spot areas in Iceland. This indicates that the various public health measures that are widely accepted as effective in limiting the spread of disease – widespread testing, contact tracing and isolation/quarantine; frequent hand washing; physical distancing; limiting the number of contacts; mask-wearing – are indeed effective. And the very reassuring finding was that the majority (over 90% of infected individuals) had robust levels of protective antibodies, and the antibody levels did not decrease over the four-month period since their diagnosis with the virus. This is really encouraging information, given that some prior studies suggested that antibody levels may wane over time.

As North Dakota continues preparing for administering the vaccines that are working their way through the evaluation and approval process, these findings strengthen the hope that a vaccine may help to end this pandemic scourge. But until then, I again implore you not to let your guard down and continue to use those public health measures that, yet again, have been validated to be effective.

On another happy note, I’m delighted to share the news that Dr. Sarah Nielsen, associate professor of Occupational Therapy (OT), has been selected as a Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association. This honor will be bestowed in April at the national OT conference. Dr. Nielsen has been an advocate and a strong leader in addressing the mental health needs of children and youth in this area. Congratulations and great work, Dr. Nielsen!

This week we celebrated Primary Care Week, an annual event hosted jointly by our Center for Rural Health and the American Medical Student Association (AMSA). Student AMSA representatives Emily Decker and Jonah Lund helped organize a very different virtual Primary Care Week than in the past. Events included a panel of primary care department chairs from the School followed by a panel of practicing primary care physicians from around the state. The Community Meet and Greet, which is usually a busy and bustling event on the second floor of the Grand Forks building, was held virtually this year and connected students with urban and rural North Dakota health care facilities. On Wednesday, the second-year medical students hosted a session for first-year students to discuss summer experiences available to students to further their medical knowledge and experience. The week wrapped up with a session from UND SMHS alumnus Dr. Brian Skow, chief medical officer for Avera eCare. Dr. Skow discussed telemedicine and how it is filling a great need in today’s virtual health care environment.

Finally, I’m looking forward to the annual session of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) the week after next. It will be an entirely virtual meeting for the first time ever, but the line-up of topics and discussants looks exciting. The opening plenary session is called “COVID and Beyond: Where Do We Go From Here?” and the guest speaker will be Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He will be followed by the well-known Dr. Anthony Fauci, who will discuss the current and potential future pandemics. Another session will focus on breakthrough technologies and their ability to accelerate the transition from basic science research to helping patients at the bedside. This is an especially important topic for the School in view of the multimillion-dollar grant program on Clinical and Translational Research (CTR) that is headed by our own Dr. Marc Basson.

Also at the AAMC session, Emmy Award-winning journalist Ann Curry will lead a discussion focusing on the importance of human connections and what happens when these connections go awry. Any number of sessions will look at diversity, equity and inclusion in the health professions. There will be sessions on telehealth, and a special session on legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I’m in the process of deciding which session to attend among several that are offered at any one time. It is likely that we’ll follow the precedent that we’ve established in the past by holding a post-meeting debrief of all School folks who attended the meeting so that each of us can learn about what transpired at sessions we were unable to attend. More to come after the meeting and debrief!

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