A message from Dean Jackson on coping with the pandemic

I previously shared with you that all of the staff and faculty have worked tirelessly since the Jan. 22 onset of the pandemic in the United States to maintain a thriving medical school environment. Like those at other medical schools across the country, our students were affected by stay-at-home orders in our community that triggered us on March 11 to quickly move to an online biomedical science curriculum and shift our teaching of clinical medicine to virtual clinical encounters. I am happy to say that all of our students now have re-entered the health care environment to continue their clinical phase of training. We plan to welcome our Year 1 students to campus and our Year 3 students for their virtual White Coat Ceremony in just a few weeks. These exciting events are occurring as we address increasing challenges—namely, a post July 4th weekend uptick in COVID cases here in Kansas City.

Hospitalizations and deaths from COVID are again on the rise and we, like most across the country, have noted a rise in cases in younger people. Addressing the uptick of COVID cases in our communities and within the state of Missouri, requires us to ensure everyone is committed to masking and social distancing. Limiting viral transmission, improving treatment efficacy, addressing health care capacity and bolstering economic health of our communities all require specific interventions. We still have gaps in resources that we must address to achieve robust COVID testing capacity, speed testing turnaround time, ramp up contact tracing and continue to address PPE shortages.

Our current focus includes addressing the issues in children who have been out of school during the pandemic. Two public schools districts in Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, recently announced they will be online for fall. These districts serve nearly 40,000 children in nearly 50 elementary schools and 20 middle and high schools, and most of their students are Hispanic or Black. In these districts, resources to provide at-home learning are fewer and COVID has produced a disproportionate impact on their families.

Children, particularly those under age 10, remain at lower risk to acquire and transmit COVID infection, have mild disease compared with adults and are unlikely to be the source of case clusters. This is critically important as we work to envision a safe path for students to return to in-person school. Dr. Rachel Orscheln, our pediatric infectious diseases colleague from Washington University, and UMKC pediatric infectious diseases faculty Drs. Jennifer Schuster and Jennifer Goldman from Children’s Mercy have worked on guidelines to outline how we may safety get children back to in-person school, and we still have hope that schools will open.

Further, as we navigate the “new normal,” we find hope in the knowledge that of the 26 COVID vaccines that are in human trials, four are progressing to Phase 3 efficacy trials. Vaccines from Pfizer, BioNtech, Moderna and AstraZeneca are leading the way and ready to recruit adult volunteers in the next few weeks. In Kansas City, the AstraZeneca/University of Oxford Phase III study will be led by Dr. Barbara Pahud, research director of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy, along with Dr. Mario Castro, a 1988 UMKC School of Medicine alumnus who is vice chair of clinical and translational research at Kansas University Medical Center. Our colleagues at Washington University will be recruiting for that same vaccine trial in St. Louis. Federal funding is expected to help at least five vaccines move to licensure by December.

As we respond to the pandemic challenges, we also acknowledge George Floyd’s killing while in police custody. At this School of Medicine, we are working for change to confront structural racism in our society. We commit to promote racial justice in our community, to address health inequity and to transform our medical school curriculum so our students and faculty are educated about the history of and expressions of racism in medicine. Changes are already in progress based on the voices of our students, staff and faculty. We have with great intent recruited and increased diversity in our Year 1 and 2 docents. We are focused on increasing our role in the community to address health inequity. And we are collaborating with Professor Mikah Thompson in the UMKC School of Law to teach critical race theory and to add curricular content throughout the six years. More changes are to come, but by using activism and advocacy, knowledge, love, grace and compassion, we believe we can change the course of humankind.

As always, we thank you for your continued support of the school, its vital mission, and our students, faculty and staff.

Mary Anne Jackson, M.D. ’78
Dean, UMKC School of Medicine