From the Dean: The prudent thing to do

Last week I discussed the changing landscape around the globe due to the omicron variant. Unfortunately, this week I need to update that overview with comments about the burgeoning impact of omicron locally across North Dakota. We have seen a rapid increase in cases statewide, with increasing numbers of new cases over the past week. In fact, on Wednesday the number of new cases was about 40 percent greater than at any time since the pandemic began. And if one adjusts for the change in recommended isolation time from 10 to five days, the current number of total active cases in North Dakota is almost double what it was during the prior peak over a year ago.

The good news is that for many people – especially for those who are triple-vaccinated – the resulting illness is not as severe as earlier versions of the virus. But because so many people are getting infected – and over a short period of time – the number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 is starting to increase.

That is compounded by the impact of the virus on the health care workforce dedicated to caring for patients. More and more providers and staff are falling ill and/or are in isolation, significantly multiplying the challenge of caring for an increasing number of hospitalized patients. In one local specialty group, for example, a quarter of its physician providers are home due to omicron. That’s a major impact on workforce and thus the ability of health care systems to provide needed care to all of us.

The effect of the recent explosion of COVID-19 cases has extended to the School. One of the major recent decisions related to the current outbreak involves the long-delayed White Coat Ceremony of the second-year medical student class (the Class of 2024). Rather than the all in-person event we had planned, after considerable discussion with the School’s senior leadership team as well as that of the University (and in consultation with Megan Corn, the class president), I made the difficult decision to transition to a hybrid event, where the students will be present in the Chester Fritz Auditorium to be awarded their white coats, but their families and friends will need to participate virtually. Students are not happy about this decision; families are not happy; I’m not happy. But it is the prudent thing to do. The most recent live version of this event, for example, saw over 500 participants. Even if we limited the number of guests for our February event, the tally still would be in the hundreds. As you can imagine, I get anxious at the prospect that any School-sponsored event might produce multiple infections among our most vulnerable populations. And some of the audience for sure would be vulnerable due to age and/or underlying medical conditions.

Given the rapidly increasing number of cases in North Dakota this week and the rising number of hospitalizations, I think the decision, even though difficult and probably unpopular, was the right thing to do. But that doesn’t make it any easier or more palatable for those impacted. We think that the event will nonetheless be memorable and impactful, especially with the guest speaker we have lined up. Dr. Don Warne, our associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, director of the Indians into Medicine (INMED) and public health programs, and chair of the Department of Indigenous Health, will be discussing “Thriving in the Face of Adversity.” It promises to be an inspiring talk, especially in these challenging times. We will post the link for the event when we get closer to it. The White Coat Ceremony for the medical student Class of 2024 will be held on Friday Feb. 4, 2022, at 6:30 p.m. We hope that you will be able to join us virtually.

A similar hybrid event will take place later today for our physician assistant Class of 2023. Speaking at the event, at least virtually, will be Drs. Eric Johnson, our director of interprofessional education, and Dave Relling, our School’s associate dean for health sciences. My congratulations to program director Dr. Jeanie McHugo and all our PA students, many of whom are destined for rural practice in the region. We need your skills now perhaps more than ever!

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