From the Dean: We know what we need to do

This has been a quiet week, all things considered, especially since UND was closed on Wednesday in recognition of Veterans Day. On Tuesday I sent an email to all School faculty, staff and students to remind them about the holiday and to ask them to pause on that day “to recognize, remember and honor the women and men who have served in our country’s armed services over many years, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Originally, the day was called Armistice Day to remember that fateful time more than 100 years ago when the armistice ending World War One was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.” I asked our School family to join me in saying “Thank you for your service” to all who are, or have been, in uniform, including our UND President Andy Armacost, who joined the UND family after a 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force.

But even with a quiet week, the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic continues to rage in North Dakota. The School has been able to maintain its teaching, research and service programs and operations in large measure thus far, thanks to the numerous public health mitigation programs we have in place and the hard work of our faculty, staff and students. But we know that much of the rapid grow in new cases in the Upper Plains is related to small group gatherings, and thus I’m especially concerned about further transmission that may occur over the Thanksgiving holiday. UND has asked students to refrain from traveling home over Thanksgiving, as painful and disruptive as that may be. The alternate suggestion for students who will be traveling home is for them to be tested for SARS-CoV-2 just before leaving and right after returning to campus. UND is working with the North Dakota Department of Health to get the logistics worked out to get this testing scheduled. Susan and I have made the difficult decision to “shelter in place” over Thanksgiving, and we won’t be visiting our families for the first time since we’ve been married. Painful indeed, but it’s the right personal decision for us.

The importance of small group gatherings, especially indoors, in the transmission of the virus was highlighted in an article that appeared this week in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The article outlined the well-reported occurrence of a SARS-CoV-2 outbreak on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. Transmission of the virus was much more common in sailors who worked in confined indoor areas such as the engine room, and was uncommon for sailors who worked outdoors on deck. Additionally, transmission was more common among enlisted sailors compared with officers, likely reflecting the more cramped living quarters in which they live that placed them in close contact with other sailors.

Another article in the same issue of the NEJM highlighted the importance of person-to-person transmission. This study looked at the transmission of the virus among marine recruits using sophisticated genetic testing; clusters of infection occurred among roommates and members of the same platoon. Transmission did not appear to occur unless the recruits were in close physical proximity to each other; shared bathrooms, for example, did not appear to be an important nidus for transmission, suggesting that spread of the virus is uncommon from surface contact.

These two studies reinforce the continued use of the control methods that we have been using at UND and the UND SMHS and highlight the importance of avoiding close physical contact with others. Since the majority of the COVID-19 positive sailors were asymptomatic, it is wise to presume that anyone we come in contact with may be a carrier of the virus. So please, wash your hands, watch your distance, wear a mask, and limit the size of any gatherings, with the best crowd size being just you!

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