BISMARCK — Officials from the University of North Dakota and the North Dakota National Guard will step into leadership roles with the state Department of Health as the coronavirus continues to take a toll on the state. At the same time, ambiguity surrounds the departure of the state's current leading health official.

Gov. Doug Burgum announced Wednesday, May 27, that Joshua Wynne, whose role as UND interim president ends in a few days, will serve as the state's first chief health strategist. Wynne will split time between the new position and his previous role as vice president for health affairs and dean of the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Wynne's position was created after it became apparent one person couldn't lead the health department alone, Burgum said. Wynne, who is already the highest paid public employee in North Dakota at $695,000 per year, will not receive any extra compensation for taking on the new responsibilities, Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.

Interim President Joshua Wynne uses his experience as a doctor and a higher education administrator to make decisions regarding the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of UND Today)
Interim President Joshua Wynne uses his experience as a doctor and a higher education administrator to make decisions regarding the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of UND Today)

Andrew Stahl, a doctor and longtime officer in the North Dakota Army National Guard’s Medical Corps, will take over as interim state health officer from Mylynn Tufte, who Burgum said resigned to return to the private sector. Burgum was asked several times whether Tufte had been asked to resign, but he would not answer directly. Tufte will stay on in an advisory role for three weeks to ease the transition into new leadership, Burgum said.

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Tufte was not present at Burgum's Wednesday press conference and later declined an interview with Forum News Service. In her resignation letter, the former nurse touted the progress made during her time at the helm, including boosting the state's testing capacity during the pandemic.

"As we have initiated the ND Smart Restart plan and continue to move to a new normal, I feel it is time for me to return to the private sector," Tufte said in her resignation letter.

Burgum said Tufte had started talking about serving through the end of Burgum's first term, which ends in January, and that her resignation came at a good time and would be helpful to the department. He thanked Tufte for her service and said she had been one of the hardest working state employees in her three years with the department.

As chief strategist, Wynne will work to "create a vision and strategy for developing a world-class public health enterprise" with private health care providers and officials at all levels of government. He will also oversee federal funding coming into the state to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, Burgum said. Wynne will be replaced as UND president by Andrew Armacost next week.

Stahl will return to his home state from the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in St. Cloud, Minn, where he served as an internal medicine doctor. He has been an officer in the North Dakota Army National Guard’s Medical Corps for more than a decade and currently holds the rank of major. He has also been involved with the state's COVID-19 Task Force since March.

Burgum said Stahl had put a new job with Sanford Health on hold to take over the department.

The pandemic has brought out some of the state health officer's most potent authorities, including issuing quarantine orders for residents who have tested positive for a communicable disease. The officeholder can also require a business to shut down if it is deemed a threat to public health.

The terms for both Wynne and Stahl officials will last through January, Burgum said.