Dean's Update

December 17, 2021 - Aron Sousa, MD


This is the end of the semester, a remarkable semester in which we have successfully taught in person throughout. In the medical education program, we have been teaching in clinics and simulation for nearly all of the pandemic. But this semester our large and small group courses were also in person. For graduate programs and our faculty who are teaching the larger university, this semester has been an adjustment to masked, mostly in person teaching. Based on the experience of many students, including one in my family, the slightly more normal educational experience has been a welcome change.

While students and faculty have adjusted to new class protocols, many supervisors and staff have been navigating the mysteries of hybrid work schedules. The Dean’s Staff Advisory Council did a survey this year and found at about 95% of staff would like to have some degree of a hybrid work environment. That’s a remarkable level of agreement among staff, and it does not mean that everyone wants the same balance of work from home and work from the office, but it does mean that as we think about what keeps people happy and engaged, we will need to think about our guidance to supervisors and units. You can connect to the Dean’s Staff Advisory Committee here.

This week, I am delighted to announce that after a national search, Julie Phillips, MD, MPH, will be the new chair of the College of Human Medicine Department of Family Medicine. She will start on March 1, 2022. Dr. Phillips Is a professor of family medicine and received her medical degree and a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Michigan before also completing her residency training in Family Medicine at U of M. Dr. Phillips has been a core faculty member at the Sparrow-MSU Family Medicine Residency Program in Lansing, where she practices full-spectrum family medicine.

For the last seven years Dr. Phillips has been the assistant dean for student career and professional development in the College of Human Medicine and is a former clerkship director. Dr. Phillips is an international expert on how students make career choices and how this shapes the emerging physician workforce. Her additional professional interests include professional development, social mission-driven medical education, narrative medicine, women in family medicine, and development of the primary care physician workforce. She is an assistant editor for Family Medicine, focused on narrative submissions; and a founding associate editor for PRIMER.

As we welcome Julie to her new role, I want to ask that you thank John vanSchagen, MD, FAAFP, for his service as interim chair since last May. I told John we would only need him for a couple of months, but who knew that people can serve as interim for much longer than expected…. He has done a wonderful job. Dr. vanSchagen has stepped in to help our faculty manage the clinic and has been a thoughtful, steady leader for the department. I am particularly thankful he stepped into the role and appreciate his help greatly.

As COVID cases have been increasing in our community, and omicron has arrived in our communities, MSU Health Care (HCI) has started a new testing service at the MSU Stadium. In addition to COVID-19 testing, the lab’s respiratory panel includes flu and RSV. Testing has started at Spartan Stadium Concourse B and will run Mon-Fri from 8:30 am - 6:30 pm – with holiday hours as well. Info here.

As we head into the holiday season, and we watch COVID-19 cases increase across the nation, and Michigan continues to lead the country in COVID-19 hospitalization rate, we need to behave better around masking and vaccination – we all need to do that. Our hospitals need us to decrease the COVID-19 burden, and we can do that by rigorously masking and being vaccinated.

Omicron is in our communities, so everyone who can get a booster (required at MSU for the spring semester) should get a booster. I say that because in three weeks omicron has outcompeted the delta variant in Scotland. Omicron is already with us, and it is going to find everyone who is not immune. In all likelihood, a large number of immune people (vaccinated and previously infected people) will get it too. The informal conversation among physicians I talk to is along the lines of, “Oh yeah, everyone is going to get omicron, just like everyone gets the other coronaviruses.” The key to surviving variants of COVID-19 is to meet them with immunity. For omicron that means being vaccinated and boostered with mRNA vaccines.

It’s not all gloom and doom. The US COVID-19 death rate per vaccinated person across all ages is similar to the US death rate across all ages for influenza. In the US, fully vaccinated people (people with a full course of a mRNA vaccine, not J&J) have a death rate of 0.8-2.0 per 100,000 vaccinated  people. In 2019 the death rate for influenza was 1.8 per 100,000. For the vaccinated, think of this like you should have thought about flu in the past.

I’m trying to push you to think about COVID-19 as an endemic virus with which we will have to live, albeit live vaccinated. COVID-19 will continue to be dangerous to people with suppressed immune systems, cancer, and advanced age in the same way that influenza is. Keep in mind that for the unvaccinated, COVID-19 is absolutely worse than influenza, but for the vaccinated, the risks of the two diseases are similar.

And, again, for the love of the people around you, wear your mask if you are indoors around potentially or actually unvaccinated people. It looks like boosters and vaccination significantly help reduce hospitalization and death from omicron, but it seems likely that everyone who has omicron can spread it including to other vaccinated people. We will learn more about the overall severity of omicron in the coming weeks.

Have healthy and safe holidays and, by all means, take a nap if you can.

Serving the people with you,


Aron Sousa, MD
Interim Dean

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