Robert Ernst, associate vice president for student life for health and wellness, and executive director of University Health Service, has been appointed the University of Michigan’s chief health officer.
Ernst will serve as a key senior adviser to the president and executive officers on matters related to the health and wellness of the university community, including the promotion of health and well-being, disease management and critical public health preparedness for all three U-M campuses.
The Board of Regents approved Ernst’s five-year appointment June 16.
He will start in the role July 1 as U-M transitions to a new public health structure that will align with a more stable, endemic phase of its COVID-19 response. That structure will include a new unit focused on infection prevention and an associated advisory committee.
“With over 25 years of service at the university, Dr. Ernst has demonstrated his expertise and strong commitment to campus health, public health and medical administration,” President Mary Sue Coleman wrote in recommending Ernst for the position.
“I am excited to take on this new role, one that allows me to continue the important public health and policy work of the university that aligns with a shared aspirational goal of being a health-promoting campus,” Ernst said.
Preeti Malani, the current chief health officer, will be appointed as a special adviser to the president when her term ends June 30. In that capacity, she will assist with public health communication efforts and work to resolve the transition of several chief health officer responsibilities and projects.
Malani will serve on a Public Health Infection Prevention and Response Advisory Committee, working closely with Ernst on continued management of COVID-19 and other infectious-disease response efforts.
Ernst is a clinical assistant professor of internal medicine and has practiced as a primary care physician since 1995.
In July 2020, he became director of U-M’s COVID-19 Campus Health Response and chair of the COVID-19 Campus Health Response Committee.
“His leadership and guidance in these roles have been crucial to the university’s success in delivering on its education, research and service missions throughout the pandemic,” Coleman said.
As part of the reorganized public health structure, Ernst will establish a new Epidemiology and Infection Prevention Unit that will oversee core functions related to infectious-disease response that were previously handled by the CHRC.
Those functions include disease monitoring and surveillance, the COVID-19 Community Sampling and Tracking testing program, wastewater surveillance, vaccine programs and database, public health communications, and data science and analytics.
“It’s my expectation that we will continue to build on the outstanding work of the CHRC with the new unit dedicated to public health preparedness and response, and that we will maintain the strong partnerships that have been established across campus when addressing matters related to the health and well-being of the university community,” Ernst said.
The Epidemiology and Infection Prevention Unit will be housed administratively at UHS but funded separately due to its broad scope covering students, faculty and staff on all three campuses.
In addition, a Public Health Infection Prevention and Response Advisory Committee will be created to advise Ernst and university leaders on matters related to infectious-disease response, policy and protocols.
The committee will include some members of the CHRC and the current Public Health Advisory group, as well as representatives from other units and the Flint and Dearborn campuses. Committee members will be appointed by the president.
U-M officials said a goal of the new public health structure is to ensure that the university’s infectious-disease response capabilities continue to operate efficiently and at a high level for ongoing COVID-19 management and any future surges or other infectious disease outbreaks.
They also wanted to allow staff and faculty to return to their regular duties while maintaining the cross-departmental and cross-functional relationships created through the CHRC structure, and to address the gaps in U-M’s public health infrastructure that the pandemic highlighted.
As the CHRC winds down, some key programs related to COVID-19 will continue as partnerships through the next fiscal year. They include the COVID-19 Call Center, the ResponsiBLUE health tracking app, quarantine and isolation housing, and COVID-19 student compliance.
Ernst previously was UHS’ medical director from 2005-14. He was associate executive director and medical director at UHS from 2014-15, senior associate division chief for ambulatory care at Michigan Medicine and assistant chair for primary care in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Medical School from 2015-18.
He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from the University of Notre Dame in 1987, and his M.D. from U-M in 1991. He completed his internal medicine residency training at the U-M hospital, where he also served as chief medical resident.