From the Dean: Vaccines in North Dakota, holiday greetings

As the semester winds down, SARS-CoV-2 cases trend downward as well in North Dakota and at UND. As has been widely reported, we’ve seen a rather dramatic recent decline in cases, test positivity rate, and hospitalizations. All of this mainly can be attributed to better attention to good public health practices by North Dakotans – especially the three Ws (wash your hands; watch your distance; wear a mask). But perhaps most important as we head into the holiday break is to be especially careful about the size of gatherings, either with family at home or in establishments. Please maintain your vigil and care – we certainly don’t want to see a post-holiday spike in cases.

Two major developments offer further hope in the new year. Most important is the availability of vaccination – the Pfizer product is not only in-state, but already in the arms (literally) of hundreds if not thousands of North Dakotans by now. Although the has state received a relatively limited supply thus far, more vaccine is expected each coming week. As such, the state and our hospitals have established (or are establishing) priorities for who gets vaccinated first. I think all would agree that front-line healthcare providers caring for SARS-CoV-2 patients and folks associated with long-term care should be at the front of the line, with others following depending on issues that impact their vulnerability (e.g., age, medical conditions, and profession). What is important is that we get as many suitable people vaccinated as quickly as possible so that we can get the pandemic more fully under control, permitting us to resume a more normal life.

The other important development is the imminent availability of more widespread – and quicker – testing with a so-called antigen test. This test costs much less than the standard PCR test and the results are available in 15 minutes, allowing for the rapid identification of a symptomatic patient with COVID-19 so isolation and contact tracing can start almost immediately. The other advantage of the test is that it permits widespread and repetitive testing of many more people than can be tested now – and North Dakota already tests more of its citizens than almost any other state. But even wider testing will allow us to identify more asymptomatic carriers of the virus and thus help limit its spread.

These developments offer encouraging signs for the new year after a challenging 2020. I could feel that sense of hope in a virtual holiday gathering the School held for its medical students on Wednesday night. Over 150 students attended, and they seemed to be in good spirits and anxious for the new year. We had a surprise in hand for medical student Ryan Norris, who was awarded a special scholarship by Captain Paul Weckman, head of Military and Veterans Affairs at Sanford Health. Ryan is helping to coordinate the student component of our re-accreditation effort and helped spearhead the effort to maximize student response on the Independent Student Analysis (ISA) I mentioned in a previous column. In case you missed the announcement, Ryan and his fellow students achieved a 100% completion rate of the ISA by all 297 members of our four medical school classes. I know of no other school that can claim that degree of success. Well done indeed!

All the best to you and yours this holiday season from Susan and me. Stay safe; stay connected; and stay in touch. I look forward to sharing my next column that will be released on Jan. 8, 2021. Until then, we will not publish a For Your Health newsletter for the next two weeks in recognition of the Christmas and New Year holidays, both of which occur on a Friday this year. See you in 2021!

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