After guiding Omaha, Heartland through pandemic, UNMC’s Rupp says goodbye

UNMC infectious diseases chief speaks one-on-one with 6 News’ Brent Weber
Dr. Mark Rupp sat down with 6 News to talk about his decision to step down as Chief of UNMC's Division of Infectious Diseases.
Published: Nov. 10, 2023 at 11:07 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The speed of the spread and the severity of COVID-19 has taken nearly seven million lives worldwide over the last four years.

And since the virus first hit U.S. soil, Omaha has been at the center of treatment and research through Omaha’s National Quarantine Unit.

Since those days in early 2020, Dr. Mark Rupp led the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s infectious diseases team at the Davis Global Center, and often provided the public with a ready, honest voice, frequently via Zoom.

With his retirement announcement last month, Rupp sat down to talk about the pandemic — and his hope for the future.

“It’s so easy for persons to become cynical and skeptical and to focus on the bad things that are going on and quite frankly, I think human beings are sort of wired to pay attention to that, you know, people who were always happy and complacent got eaten by the cave bears, right?” Rupp said. “But if you really step back from that a little bit and you look at some of the great things that are going on in our society, in science, we live in a pretty exciting time with still a lot of upside and a lot of potential.”

Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UNMC and medical director of the Nebraska Medical Center Department of Infection Control and Epidemiology, Rupp came to Omaha in 1992.

When COVID-19 began to break through in China, his team was somewhat prepared. He said many in public health and infectious diseases knew a pandemic would likely occur at some point, either due to a coronavirus or influenza.

“Early in the days when they said, hey, we’re gonna have the vaccine by twelve months from now, I personally remember thinking, wow, that’s that’s kind of ambitious,” Rupp said. “But it did come together and you know, truly this [development of vaccines] was an amazing accomplishment of the collaboration between industry, academia, and government to really come together in an emergency and to get this out this quickly.”

Yet Rupp, his team, and the scientific community were often fighting what he calls a “medical literacy” problem.

“Look, none of us are saying that vaccines don’t have rare side effects or toxicity, they do, we acknowledge that,” Rupp said. “But the risk of having a bad outcome from a disease that almost assuredly is gonna hit you versus, you know, a very limited amount of risk accepting a vaccine, are two very different things, and trying to get people to understand that risk-benefit, I think, is where we need to be putting our emphasis.”

Rupp will stay on as chief until the job is filled, which could be six months or longer.

“I think we are in a much better place obviously with the pandemic,” Rupp said. “I think that the division’s in a great place, but it’s also a great time for somebody to come in with some fresh ideas, some new energy and to take us even to the next higher level. I’m immensely proud of the division of infectious diseases here and I’ll be even that much more proud as I watch it go to the next level with the next leader.”

Watch the full interview