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Please read this letter from Wesley Burks, MD, Dean of the UNC School of Medicine and CEO of UNC Health Care, on the one-year anniversary of the first documented case of COVID-19 in North Carolina.

Dear Colleagues,

It wasn’t exactly overnight, but things changed quickly. We read reports from China and saw images from Italy. Then there were cases in Washington and it wasn’t if, but when. On March 3, 2020, the question of when was answered: now.

At times the last year has felt like five. In other moments time was a blur. I looked back today at some of the first messages that we sent about the virus, as we appointed leaders to coordinate our response and amended policies for visitors and PPE usage. In those early days we weren’t even sure what to call it – coronavirus, novel coronavirus, then, COVID-19.

From the very start of the pandemic our goals were to provide excellent care to our patients and to protect our co-workers. In the urgency and intensity of this work there were certainly decisions that needed to be changed or corrected. There were sometimes too many communications, then, sometimes not enough. I know that there were missteps at times, but, I hope there were also many more steps in a positive direction.

In addition to risks to our physical health and safety, the last year has brought a heavy emotional burden. It started with decisions about how to best keep your families safe, changing clothes and showering quickly upon getting home after shifts, sleeping in other parts of your homes, isolating yourself from partners and children.  You became home school principals and office managers, balancing personal and professional demands, worrying about the health and safety of your loved ones.

The stresses of the last year brought so much to the surface. We grieved as we watched George Floyd, a Black man whose autopsy revealed he also had COVID-19, senselessly killed. We saw Black and Hispanic families face a much greater burden as a result of COVID-19 and the health inequity that has existed for decades. We felt our nation’s divisions more clearly than ever as a violent mob breached our Capital Building and attempted to undermine our democracy.

We’ve lost beloved colleagues, friends, and family members. To some, 500,000 Americans and more than 10,000 North Carolinians lost to COVID-19 is simply too much to comprehend. But not to you, as you cared for them individually, heard their stories, found ways to connect them with their families, prayed, sang, laughed and cried.

We shared many challenges in this last year, while also facing stresses and obstacles unique to each of us. Through that, you showed resolve and perseverance, in some cases doing jobs that didn’t even exist a year ago. And you did it all with empathy for those we serve and all other members of our One Great Team.

We have lost a lot this year. But, I hope we have gained some things as well. We’ve worked together on new teams and in new ways, with stakes higher than any we have ever faced. You have worked harder, with more intensity, and without a lot of relief for a really long time. You have shared your experiences with each other, bonding as parents and children, sisters and brothers. Those strong bonds will outlast this moment.

We are all hopeful that soon, as vaccine administration continues, we can start to return to a more normal way of living. When we get there, we will all be changed by what we’ve experienced together this year. Let’s use those lessons to better care for our patients and each other, and let’s never forget all those we’ve lost.


Wesley Burks