Dean's Update

January 14, 2022 - Aron Sousa, MD


As you know, the federal holiday Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Day is next week. The health colleges’ celebration of MLK Day will be Thursday, January 20, at 5:45pm. Moving the events off of MLK Day, the federal holiday, has helped our audience participation for these events, and I hope you will join our virtual event. Our speaker, Rachel Hardeman, PhD, MPH, will speak on how COVID-19 has laid bare racism in health care. Our own people have been deeply involved in understanding and addressing the disparities and inequities brought to the surface by COVID-19. As examples, check out the work of Drs. MisraFurr-HoldenSneed, and Oboh, among others.

Despite progress on testing equity and some perception that Michigan has been doing better than many states in addressing COVID-19 disparities, as a state we have tragic racial disparities in deaths rates from COVID-19 (see Figure 1). In the current surge in Ingham County, case rates show the same kind of disparity (see Slides 12 and 14). As we see consistently in economic upheaval, downturns land with their own racial disparities evidenced this year in higher levels of unemployment and evictions (see Figure 3 and 4) among Black Americans.

I do not need to remind you of these injustices. I do not need to remind you of our history, its costs, the purloined fortunes, the lost lives. And after nearly two years of suffering, injustices, and pandemic, I find it hard to meet the lengthening days with much optimism or charitable understanding. And then with the approach of MLK Day, I read Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. It will not cure all that ails you; but, despite the context of a difficult and frightening time, the speech is so optimistic and so full of hope, you will be changed. Brilliant too, of course. Dr. King:

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

If you can, I hope you take the federal holiday as a time to reflect, be inspired, and be hopeful through reading Dr. King’s work or watching his speeches.

The pandemic continues in our communities now with increasing rates of hospitalization and record case numbers. The real concern for most vaccinated and boosted people should not be their own infection, their concern should be the overloaded state of our clinics and hospitals. Not only are cases rising, but staff are getting sick in clinics and hospitals that were already understaffed. It is just not possible to take good care of patients when you do not have enough people to do the work. Treatments and tests cannot happen without enough people to handle the load, and those missed opportunities can cost people their health.

In another update, I can talk about why I think we should view the coming endemic COVID-19 world as a step toward a more normal world. But right now, we need to protect the health system by being vaccinated and boosted, wearing masks indoors in public, and spatially distancing. We need to flatten the curve again to make sure there is good health care available when we need it.

Last week, the college’s Town Hall focused on COVID-19 with pediatric infectious disease physician and College of Human Medicine Chair of Pediatrics and Human Development, Keith English, MD. There were so many questions that we could not get through them all in an hour, and Keith stayed after to answer more. And then, he asked to address a few more here. Dr. English’s bullets:

  • Omicron is here, causing almost all cases of COVID-19 in Michigan at this time.
  • Omicron is more contagious than any of the previous variants, but appears to be less virulent, causing less severe disease on average.
  • Pediatric hospitalizations associated with Omicron infection are increasing rapidly, though many of these children are being hospitalized for other reasons (including other viral infections such as influenza) and are also positive for COVID-19.
  • Primary immunization is less protective against infection caused by Omicron than by previous variants BUT remains highly protective against severe disease. Booster immunization improves protection against both infection and disease.
  • Previous infection provides less reliable protection against infection and disease caused by Omicron as compared with previous variants – previously infected people should be vaccinated!
  • CDC has approved booster doses for children aged 12 years and older who completed their primary vaccine schedule at least 5 months ago.
  • CDC has approved a third dose of vaccine for children aged 5-11 who are immunocompromised.
  • Studies of COVID-19 vaccines in children aged 6 months to 5 years are still in progress; initial tests of a lower dose in children aged 2-5 resulted in lower than expected antibody responses. Robert Frenck Jr., MD, director of the vaccine center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and a leader of the studies of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in children, will be providing an “Update on Pediatric COVID-19 Vaccines” at next week’s MSU-Sparrow Pediatric Grand Rounds (8 am, Thursday, January 20).
  • Unvaccinated individuals’ risk of death from COVID-19 is 13-20 times higher than individuals who have received primary vaccine series plus a booster dose.

In other news, keep your eyes peeled for a college donor announcement event on January 26.

My thanks to the good folks in Student Affairs working to ensure our students get their financial aid. They are actively advocating for our students, following up with individual inquiries, and requesting systemic changes. My deep apologies to the students impacted by this MSU institutional level issue.

I hope you and yours are safe in so many ways. Do your best to flatten the curve and take care of each other.

Serving the people with you,


Aron Sousa, MD
Interim Dean

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