Right person, right time: Wynne’s background helps him steer UND

A physician and public-health professional, Interim President Joshua Wynne uses his breadth of experience to help UND fight the coronavirus

UND Interim President Joshua Wynne, who is a practicing physician and holds a master’s degree in public health, has relied on his knowledge and experience as a doctor and administrator while guiding the University through the coronavirus outbreak. One of his primary goals is keeping UND’s commitment to provide students with the education they need for future professions and employment. UND archival image.

Although the University of North Dakota finds itself in the unusual position of having both an interim president and an incoming president, the timing of the coronavirus outbreak has turned this situation into a strength.

On June 1, Andrew Armacost, former Dean of the Faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy, is scheduled to become UND’s 13th president. In the meantime, Joshua Wynne, UND vice president for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS), continues to serve as the University’s interim president.

As a practicing cardiologist with a master’s degree in public health and as an experienced administrator, Wynne is perhaps one of the better qualified university presidents in the United States to tackle the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. These skills have helped over the past two weeks, as UND has dealt with the same difficult issues higher education across the country has faced.

“Both the practical experience as a physician, as well as formal training in public health, have given me insights, knowledge and experience that I think helps with the current crisis facing not just UND, not just Grand Forks, not just North Dakota and not just the United States, but, in fact, the entire world,” he said during an interview with UND Today.

Joshua Wynne

Wynne holds a medical degree from Boston University and completed his residencies in internal medicine and cardiology at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In 2004, he came to the UND’s SMHS as executive associate dean and associate dean for academic affairs. He became the school’s dean and vice president for health affairs in 2010.

Wynne has authored or co-authored more than 80 peer-reviewed manuscripts, over 80 abstracts, dozens of book chapters, reviews and review articles, and one book.

This week, newspapers across North Dakota published an opinion piece Wynne wrote titled “Short-term pain for long-term gain” on how to approach the challenges posed by the coronavirus. He visited with UND Today about how UND is responding to the current worldwide health crisis. The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.

Are you staying in touch with incoming president Andrew Armacost?

Yes. We typically talk directly probably at least once a day, either by phone or email. From Colorado, he virtually attends and contributes to all the high-level meetings his schedule allows. That’s the routine we’ve been doing and will continue until he takes over as the new president on June 1.

What would you like North Dakota’s citizens to know about the steps UND and other North Dakota higher education institutions are taking to combat the spread of the coronavirus?

One of the biggest things we’re focusing on is making sure we can deliver on our commitment to students to equip them for whatever phase they’re in for future professions and employment. The rapid transition to online teaching has gone well in many areas, but has been a little more problematic in others where it’s very difficult to do some activities online. For instance, with our nursing students and medical students, part of their education is in patient-care settings. We are suspending many of those activities for a time. We’re going to augment what we’ve been doing over the last two weeks and plan for the possibility we may need to extend that limitation on clinical experiences, even beyond the two-week period.

The bottom line is that we’re working very hard to try to make sure we provide our students with a robust educational experience they can use moving forward. The regulatory agencies that oversee the accreditation of schools are aware of these challenges and are working with us to develop curricular and other approaches that enable students to complete their educational degrees with the knowledge, skills and experiences they need.

We’re doing this to the maximum extent we can, given the very challenging situation under which we’re now operating.

Josh Fenton, commissioner of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, was quoted in news stories as saying you were one of the key people he relied on for information and advice about how the league should respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. What were you able to tell him that helped the NCHC arrive at its decision not to hold its conference hockey tournament?

I was one of the eight college presidents involved in working with Josh on this decision. As difficult as it was, it was the right decision. What I brought to it was the difficult weighing of the excitement for the sport versus trying to do the right thing for the people attending the events and the public at large. It relates to this very critical concept about the wave of new cases of the coronavirus that has occurred in other places where they didn’t do sufficient containment activities, such as social distancing.

What we’ve seen now, unfortunately, in South Korea, China and northern Italy is that initially, the health systems became overwhelmed and overrun with critically ill patients. They went from everything being fine to an unmitigated disaster in a few weeks. It was because the spread of the virus actively accelerates.

The virus reproduces in the United States at such a rate that there’s a doubling in the number of cases in about three days. When you have something that increases at that rate, it doesn’t sound like very much if you have only one case or 10 cases or 100 cases. But try doing the arithmetic of doubling those numbers every three days, and you can see that in a matter of weeks, you’re getting an astronomical number of cases.

If we’d allowed thousands of people to come together at a hockey game and only a few of them had the virus (in most people, the symptoms are rather mild), nobody would know. They’d go and spread it to someone next to them, who would then go home and spread it to someone else. Soon, you’d have an exponential increase in the number of cases that would go up extremely rapidly. It would overwhelm our healthcare system, as it did in China and northern Italy.

Our healthcare system is outstanding, and we can handle some surge in capacity in the number of sick patients. But when there are hundreds of patients appearing and there’s a limited number of intensive care unit beds and a limited number of ventilators to assist people with severe lung infections, that is where it becomes extremely desperate.

UND Interim President Joshua Wynne during winter commencement in January. UND archival image.

In what ways do you expect that this coronavirus outbreak could change the world and life as we know it?

I really hope the world has learned something about the need for better levels of preparedness. We’ve heard stories about healthcare facilities not having enough gowns or masks. We certainly need to improve our public health infrastructure so that we can identify emerging diseases like COVID-19 much earlier to speed effective intervention. We need to continue the substantial investment this country and others have made in science to learn more about these viruses, how to deal with them and how to treat them. I hope those sorts of things improve going forward.

What I hope is that when we do all that’s necessary, we can get through this without the major loss of life that might occur otherwise. I think we can get back to a more “normal” life by taking preventive measures, improving public health and having better identification of when we’re seeing an outbreak.

I am very confident that if we’re aggressive now, we will reap the benefit in the future, and we will not have to be in social-distancing mode indefinitely.

As a physician, I’m most concerned about human health and vitality and preventing deaths. Another issue is the downturn in the economy, stock market losses and – even worse – the loss of jobs because of this endemic. This is certainly going to be a major problem for a while.

But I think the good news is that once we get through this, all the ingredients that led to an incredibly robust economy before the COVID-19 outbreak should return. The pain we need to be especially aware of is with the people who are on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. We need to keep that in mind as we also think about our neighbors and our friends.

What role do research universities play in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak and future pandemics?

Research universities are essential on at least two levels. One is the public health, epidemiologic and statistical level. That is, to analyze what’s going on, look at what the trends are by rigorous analysis of the data, and help us make management decisions going forward.

For instance, social distancing and “flattening the curve” are supported by sophisticated modeling exercises that a variety of universities around the world have done to look at the impact of interventions by using computer simulations. We now have practical evidence from China and South Korea that they work.

Perhaps the more important role of research universities in the long run will be to help in the understanding of the virus itself – not just this one, but also viruses in general. How does the body react to the viral challenge? What we can do from a therapeutic standpoint to either prevent the viral infection from damaging the body or helping the body recover once the damage has occurred?

On both levels, research universities in the future have an enormous amount to add to what we’re doing right now.