White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah L. Birx commended responsible college students, calling them an example for Americans to follow during the first installment of the 2020-21 LeMieux Center for Public Policy speaker series.
Birx joined former U.S. Sen. George S. LeMieux for a virtual interview recorded in Palm Beach Atlantic’s Pembroke Hall Friday morning. She said her interactions with young people on more than 25 university campuses around the country have left her hopeful.
Testing college students — even asymptomatic ones — can help stop the spread of the virus to more vulnerable populations, because the students will isolate if they know that they’re infected, she said.
One university in the Northeast launched a “Mask Up or Pack Up” campaign to promote mask-wearing. Americans can learn from the preventative measures that college students are taking, Birx said.
“They are highly-motivated to be there and have in-person learning,” Birx said. “We should be highly-motivated to protect one another by masking and physical distancing.”
PBA President Dr. Debra A. Schwinn joined LeMieux in the Pembroke studio to greet Birx and tell her about the University’s success in opening the campus for in-person classes this fall. “We’ve finished 10 weeks with fairly low coronavirus levels,” Schwinn said.
Schwinn herself has an extensive medical background, and has led a team of medical health experts on PBA’s faculty and staff to establish safeguards and procedures for COVID-19. She has praised the students, faculty and staff for their “masking up,” and following guidelines to help prevent spread of the virus. She thanked Birx, “a fellow physician/scientist,” for her service.
Birx’s three-decades-long career has focused on HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research and global health. She is coordinator of the United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS and U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy. Her background, along with her visits to more than 35 states in recent months, brings valuable, on-the-ground experience to the coronavirus task force, she said.
“You can’t just tackle a virus dealing only with the science,” Birx said. “You have to translate the science to the community level and work with the communities and each age group where they are.”
Although states in the southeast and southwest failed to identify “silent spreaders” early on, they were able to mitigate the virus by wearing masks and shutting down bars where large groups of people gathered close together. By doing so, they kept the rest of the economy open and proved that such precautions work when implemented on a large scale, Birx said.
Birx cautioned that Americans will need to stay vigilant to avoid further spread of the virus as the seasons change.
“We agree to work together to not only mask up and physically distance but ensure that we’re not unmasking and gathering in households that increase substantially the opportunity for community spread,” Birx said. “That’s the kind of behavioral change that we need as we move into the colder weather.”
Part of the problem, LeMieux said, is that people become frustrated by having to quarantine for five to seven days while they await test results.
Birx said pooling tests in large, commercial labs would decrease testing time. Research universities can also help by employing their medical research equipment to process tests. A single research institution has now processed more than one million tests.
“They brought together a talent base and answered the problem we were having with testing with a solution, a solution now that’s providing testing to more than 100 colleges and universities in the Northeast,” Birx said, calling on other universities to follow suit.
The federal government has worked with research institutes and diagnostic companies to develop the types of rapid HIV tests that have been used for decades. Rapid, routine testing of young people helps detect early, silent community spread and prevent large outbreaks, Birx said.
Birx expressed optimism that vaccines will be available for first responders and the most vulnerable populations by the end of this year or beginning of next. All of the vaccines in development target the spike proteins of the virus, she said. It is those proteins that enable the virus to invade cells of the body.
“Know that these viruses can’t do anything outside of your body,” Birx said. “Their whole job in life is to get into you and into one of your cells, so that they can use your cell machinery to replicate.”
The Independent Data and Safety Monitoring Board will receive the data from vaccine trials and decide whether the vaccines are safe and effective. Americans owe it to those who have volunteered for the trials to take precautions to slow the spread of the virus until the vaccines are widely available, Birx said.
“We can be that bridge to when we will have an effective vaccine that will protect the American people,” she said. “We know what to do. It’s just ensuring that we do it in public and private every day.”
LeMieux thanked Birx for her leadership.
“You’ve been a great inspirational voice to the American people and a calm and steady leader during a very difficult time,” he said.
Photo 1: University President Dr. Debra A. Schwinn and former U.S. Sen. George S. LeMieux opened the first installment of the 2020-21 LeMieux Center for Public Policy speaker series with Dr. Deborah L. Birx.
Photo 2: Professor Don Piper, chair of the Applied Digital Media Department, monitors the interview in the studio control room.