College of
Human
Medicine

January 7, 2022

Friends,

I trust you all had as good a holiday season as beloved parts of American culture can offer, and that you had the chance for some rest. Of course, I suggest getting some rest just as the university converts again to partial online education and COVID-19 cases skyrocket. The imperative for rest is not fully realistic for those who have to change their syllabus or work in hospitals and clinics that are short staffed.

Today’s Town Hall with Keith English, MD, was focused on COVID-19, what we think is our current state, and where we think things are going. It’s very hard to tell, but I think a lot of people are going to get omicron in the next few weeks. My friends running hospitals say off-the-cuff things like, “oh yeah, we are all going to get it,“ which is not rigorously true in the short term but provides a sense of scale.

I don’t think many people would have expected the East Lansing High School to have 500 students absent one day this week. (I suppose some students were not sick but kept home to quarantine, but regardless, that is an impressive number.) Percent positive rates are at record levels, cases are at record levels, hospitalizations are increasing, and even with the decreased severity of omicron, projections show deaths approaching 3,000 per day next month driven by the huge caseload. There are a lot of sick people.

I do see some reason to hope. Compared with the delta variant, most people with omicron are not getting as sick. For many, that is because they are vaccinated or previously infected. I am optimistic we are going to turn a corner on COVID-19, which will become the fifth endemic human coronavirus.

Data from the UK makes it likely that hospitalization and serious illness from omicron is lower than from the delta variant. The same analysis indicates that primary Pfizer vaccination effectiveness is not so great for omicron but that a booster lifts vaccine effectiveness back up to something similar to what we see with the delta variant. If you get the Moderna booster after a Pfizer primary vaccination, then your protection is even better.

Infection with the four, old-school, endemic human coronaviruses leads us to have protective immunity lasting for many months to several years, but we are eventually susceptible to those viruses again. Mostly we notice those re-infections as one of any number of viruses that cause the common cold. Just as for the four endemic coronaviruses, prior infection eventually does not do much to protect you from infection with the COVID-19 omicron variant. Vaccination does protect you from serious illness or death. And with the same data, previously infected people are also doing better than people did with delta. We will not get rid of COVID-19, and over the course of the next months or years, you will eventually get it as you get other coronaviruses. And when you do get it, you will be much better off with immunity from a vaccine and booster.

I am not suggesting we stop wearing masks, spatial distancing, or encouraging vaccination. Our hospitals and health care system are in overload, we are understaffed, and we are almost certainly missing the chance to help people because the system is overburdened. Slowing down infections is in everyone’s best interest. That said, thinking you can avoid endemic coronaviruses in the long run is folly. We have to live with coronaviruses as we always have.

In good news coming from the university, provost, and EVP, our departments are part of four of the 13 excellence in DEI positions, now called the 1855 Professorship Initiative. I think our folks did a great job working with other colleges and units in those proposals, and we should be delighted to be collaborating on those searches in the coming months.

We continue progress on the strategic planning process for the college. Our consultants are finishing the question domains and prompts for conversations with internal and external partners of the college. In addition, we are close to finalizing the Strategic Planning Task Force. There are about twice as many nominations as positions on the Task Force, and those who are not on the Task Force will be asked to be on work groups. The last part of the selection process has been trying to get broad diversity and balance on the Task Force in domains including geography, discipline, gender, race, role in the college. We are asking a member of the public to serve as well. My thanks to Carol Parker and her team for all the work going into this effort.

There is good snow in many parts of the state, and yet there is no doubt we are all in for some rough sledding in the coming weeks. Thanks for all you do to keep our communities healthy and safe. Take care of yourself and each other, and find joy in the world.

Serving the people with you,

Aron

Aron Sousa, MD
Interim Dean