State Health Officer Mylynn Tufte is ending her service a little earlier than originally planned, timing that Gov. Doug Burgum said did not necessarily mean she had been asked to resign. He said it reflected a high level of professionalism on Tufte’s part, and will give Burgum more lead time to prepare a new vision for the Department of Health ahead of the next legislative session.
Burgum lauded the accomplishments of Tufte, noting the state is now on a downward trajectory for coronavirus cases, and said the state’s chief health officer had led North Dakota through a particularly difficult time, in a role that he believes should have actually have been three during a pandemic, not just one.
“A period of disruption creates opportunities for innovation,” Burgum said. “And when we have a period of great disruption like we are having now, it demands innovation.”
Burgum has appointed Dr. Andrew Stahl to serve as interim state health officer to oversee the North Dakota Department of Health, and he appointed University of North Dakota Interim President Joshua Wynne to serve in a newly created position as the state’s chief health strategist.
Both men have extensive medical background and training. Wynn earned his medical degree from Boston University and did his internal medicine residency and his cardiology fellowship at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Harvard Medical School. He was chief of the Division of Cardiology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan from 1984 to 1997 and served as a member of the Faculty Senate at Wayne State University School of Medicine, serving as its vice president from 1997 to 1999 and its president from 1999 to 2001.
Stahl, meanwhile, earned his bachelors degree from North Dakota State University and his medical degree from UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He worked as an internal medicine physician at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Cloud, Minn. He served active duty in the Army from 2001 to 2005, where he earned the rank of sergeant, and was a staff sergeant in the North Dakota Army National Guard from 2005 to 2009. He has received many medals during his service, including the Army Commendation Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary medal, and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
Stahl has more recently been providing strategic medical analysis for North Dakota’s COVID-19 response efforts.
Burgum has tasked Wynne with creating a new vision and strategy for a world-class public health enterprise, one that will work in partnership with the University of North Dakota System, as well as with local public health entities, the private sector, and government agencies at all levels.
Wynn will keep his role with the North Dakota University System, splitting his time between the temporary North Dakota Department of Health leadership position and his ongoing role as UND’s vice president for health affairs and dean of the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences. His term as interim university president expires May 31.
Stahl, meanwhile, will begin his position as interim state health officer effective June 1.
Tufte is remaining in an advisory role for three weeks, to ensure continuity of operations and a smooth transition.
Burgum, pressed on whether Tufte had been asked to resign, said he and Mylynn had talked about her impending departure at the end of his first term earlier in the year.
“This was a plan Mylynn had talked about, and then we just talked about when would be good timing,“ Burgum said.
Given that the state is entering a new phase now and that Burgum wants to have a new vision ready before the next legislative session, the governor said they agreed that now was probably good timing.
Burgum also noted that Tufte had left the private sector, taking a pay cut to come to North Dakota, and had only committed to serve through the end of the governor’s first term.
“Mylynn was tireless,” Burgum said, adding that he felt she had more than fulfilled her commitments to him.
“I feel like she fulfilled the commitment because working in (this pandemic) is like working in dog years,” he said. “She’s probably worked enough hours for an entire other year.”
Burgum called Tufte’s efforts heroic, and suggested not even a superhero could have done better.
“I think that Mylynn knows as well as anyone the challenges of trying to do essentially what I’ve described as three jobs,” Burgum said, adding, “I say pick your super hero, you know. Superman, Superwoman, Ironman. Pick your favorite. It would be an impossible task.”
Burgum also said his Continuity of Government task force will be looking at which positions can be made permanently remote, and that he wants to retain the ability for citizens to conduct business without having to put in personal appearances for so many routine matters.
“I think there’s gonna be a look, a strategic look, at every company in America, and it should be in every government agency,” he said. “We should look (at) what things can we change permanently, because one of the best things we can do for citizens is to save them a trip coming to the capital.”
North Dakota reported 17 new cases of coronavirus out of 1,048 tests — the lowest since April 21. The testing levels, however, are well below what Burgum would like to see, mainly, the governor said, due to the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Sixteen of the 17 new cases were from Cass County.
The state now has 621 active confirmed cases, 40 hospitalizations and 56 deaths.
However, assuming that COVID-19 is now in the rearview mirror is dangerous, Burgum added, particularly when the state’s next door neighbor, Minnesota, has so many cases of coronavirus. That state is using 80 percent of its ICU bed capacity at this time, Burgum said.
While not all of that bed space is for coronavirus, Burgum suggested it underscores the fact that North Dakota is only doing well because of the responsible behavior of its citizens.
“I’ve said many times, it’s not what government says, it’s what people do,” Burgum said.
That responsible behavior needs to continue, the governor suggested, to sustain the state’s reopening amid the pandemic.