From the Dean: Facing pandemic fatigue

I’m so tired of the pandemic and its impact on all of us! I’ll bet you feel the same way. And yet several events this week demonstrated that despite our collective pandemic fatigue, annoyance, and – yes – anger, the pandemic unfortunately isn’t done with us yet, due in large measure to the emergence and spread of the so-called delta variant. The first event – trivial as it may seem – was when I walked into our building on the UND campus and, as usual, walked up the three flights of stairs to my office on the fourth floor. I’ve commented here before that having my office up on the fourth floor has been such an unanticipated advantage, as it afforded me the opportunity to bump into all sorts of folks on my walks – and also helped keep me in reasonable physical shape! What struck me was that I ran into a grand total of one person on my climb, unlike in pre-pandemic days when I’d be able to say hello to literally dozens of students, staff, and faculty. It was the same when I walked down the stairs on the way home – interestingly enough, the one person I ran into on the way down was the same person I saw in the morning. That’s not a lot of human contact.

The second event was the release on Tuesday afternoon of the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines mainly regarding the use of masks. The CDC release has generated a lot of media attention and controversy, but the root issue behind the new guidelines was the rapid spread of the delta variant across the United States. The new guidelines are interesting in that the recommendations are based on a county-by-county analysis of SARS-CoV-2 prevalence; masks are recommended for all, whether vaccinated or not, in counties with “substantial” or “high” levels of viral infections. If you are interested, you can see the data for your own county (whether in North Dakota or elsewhere) here (CDC COVID Data Tracker). Fortunately for UND, Grand Forks County is at the “moderate” level, and the guidelines do not recommend masking routinely (we still use masks in our building because of our contact with high-risk patients in the clinic and hospital).

But for our students on our regional campuses in Bismarck and Minot, it’s a different story; Burleigh and Ward Counties (where Bismarck and Minot, respectively, are located) are in the “substantial” range, and thus the CDC recommendation is for masks indoors.

Because of these pandemic trends, the third event this week followed the CDC release of the new guidelines when I, as the chair of the North Dakota University System task force dealing with the pandemic, chatted with system Chancellor Mark Hagerott. We agreed that we needed to reconvene the task force after it had been dormant for a while. We will be re-starting our weekly meetings next Thursday.

All three events have me somewhat deflated with the realization that the pandemic isn’t done yet. So two points for you to consider as you deal with your own pandemic depression and fatigue – first, listen to your body, and if the pressures really are getting to you, get help. Witness the recent withdrawal from Olympic competition of two high-performing elite athletes. Congratulations to them for listening – and acting. One of the things that I’ve done is to take advantage of the periodic virtual meditation sessions hosted by our own Michelle Montgomery, who is one of our wellness advocates and is working with our students to help them deal with the challenges of the pandemic – and simply of being a student in a high-stress environment. It has been amazing how refreshed I feel after a short meditation session! So thank you again, Michelle!

Second, if you want to do something to end the pandemic, you have the power to help if you are unvaccinated. The delta variant is spreading mainly among the unvaccinated, and the surest way to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror is for North Dakota to have almost all of its adult citizens vaccinated. Unfortunately, more than half of all adults in our state remain unvaccinated. Help yourself stay healthy and help your neighbors – get vaccinated!

As far as the ongoing impact of the pandemic on our operations as a school and university, UND President Armacost just this week sent out a helpful overview of what UND might anticipate for the upcoming fall semester. With that perspective as our guiding light, I plan to ask the leadership team at the SMHS to help me update our own pandemic guidelines and policies for the fall semester that starts in less than a month. You may recall that the School provided similar guidance earlier, but with all these recent developments, it is time for an updated overview. You can expect to see the revised document in the next few weeks, and it should help all – students, faculty, staff, and friends – deal with the impact of the pandemic from the vantage point of the SMHS.

Finally, congratulations to Dr. Marc Basson, senior associate dean for Medicine and Research, who has been selected as one of only six senior faculty members from across the country to participate in the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Council of Deans (COD) Fellowship program. This program is designed to enhance the leadership development of senior faculty members for high-level leadership roles in health care organizations like ours. I’ve had some experience in a somewhat similar program also run by the AAMC COD. It’s for newly appointed deans and helps them navigate their new responsibilities. I profited from it immensely, and hope that Dr. Basson has a similarly positive experience, as I suspect he will. Well done, Marc, and best wishes in the program.

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