From the Dean: New pandemic protocol

Although medical and other students have matriculated already, the bulk of UND students are returning to campus for the start of the fall semester on Monday. I know that all of us had anticipated a more normal start to the fall semester, but the delta variant has changed that. Accordingly, we’ve had to revise and update our pandemic mitigation protocols. While I had hoped that we would be back to a new normal by now, unfortunately that’s not the case. I suspect that it is going to get worse before it gets better. But with only half of the adult population in North Dakota vaccinated (and probably significantly less for our students), there is only so much that mitigation can do. Yet, it is better to try to limit the spread of the disease than to let it run unfettered, if only so that our hospitals are not overwhelmed (as is happening in some areas in the South).

To that end, today we are releasing an updated SMHS pandemic protocol, effective with the start of the fall semester on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. The guidelines have been extensively vetted by the School’s leadership, but unfortunately there are relatively few relaxations in policy from what has been in effect over the summer. You may recall that we issued new guidelines effective June 1, 2021, with the hope and expectation that things would be different by the fall. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. As you will see when you review the new guidelines, the only real changes are in regard to physical distancing when indoors and travel by UND faculty, staff, or students who have no direct patient contact.

Potential contact with patients who may be vulnerable and at particular risk from SARS-CoV-2 is the primary reason why the School has mitigation policies that are, in some ways, more proscriptive than those of UND. It truly would be awful if one of us, as part of our UND position, were to unwittingly transmit the virus to one of our patients. We’ve learned over the past several months that even vaccinated individuals – and even those without symptoms of COVID-19 – may be able to transmit the disease. One recently reported study suggested that vaccinated and unvaccinated people may potentially have similar levels of viral load in their airways, and thus (presumably) may be able to transmit the virus equally. While this issue is not totally resolved, the potential is real enough for us to be cautious.

This is why UND “strongly recommends” both masking indoors and vaccination in its latest guidelines.

The bottom line is that I’m sorry that it has come to this. The best way we can get through this as quickly and as uneventfully as possible is to get as many of us vaccinated as soon as possible. Booster shots will be required for many of us and should become available sometime next month. The good news is that additional booster shots may not be required, as the immune response to booster shots in some clinical trials has been extremely robust.

Thanks again for your patience and perseverance. Stay safe, be careful, and get vaccinated if you haven’t yet.

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