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White House official praises UVM

Dr. Devborah Birx said she was impressed with student, community response to pandemic during campus visit, Saturday

By Alek Fleury/Vermont Cynic

On a visit to the University of Vermont campus Saturday, Oct. 10, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx praised UVM and the state for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the same time, she warned how quickly low positive test rates can change if the state becomes complacent. Birx said that right now Vermont is 51 out of 51, with the lowest positivity rate in the country. “There were other states that shared that spot with Vermont — Montana, Wyoming — and you can see how quickly a virus can spread when the community doesn’t prevent the spread of that virus,” she said. “It does take all of us making that personal sacrifice of wearing a mask and physical distancing and taking that same philosophy, just like the students do into their dorm rooms and in their apartments.”

Birx said that other states and universities should look at UVM and its students as evidence that staying safe while learning in-person and keeping positivity rates low is possible.

“Again, I will tell you, every student knows how to be safe,” she said. “Because the lowest testing we’ve ever seen among 18- to 22-year-olds were entry test results, but here, they’ve learned how to stay safe during that fall semester.”

In August, UVM conducted more than 9,000 pre-arrival Covid-19 tests on students returning to campus. Since then, the university mandated once-a-week testing for all students taking in-person classes.

The university has received 70,000 test results since Aug. 7 with only 24 positive cases.

Birx emphasized that the university has done an admirable job at empowering students to understand they still can do certain things and that life during a pandemic is not about a bunch of “red x’s.”

“It was really important to meet with the students, to be able to talk to nursing students and medical students and undergraduates, and to really see the leadership of the Greek life group here,” Birx said.

Birx said she was impressed by the students she spoke with and how they not only appreciated the need for safe practices with their fellow students but also at home as well.

“I was very struck talking to the students because the students reference their families and where they come from,” she said. “They come from across this country and they also are conveying those messages of physical distancing, mask-wearing, protecting one another back to their households that they come from.”

Birx emphasized the important role that research universities like UVM play and suggested that losing researchers across the country during the spring as universities shut down created a significant knowledge gap.

She said while Covid research was ongoing, there was a real lack of understanding within the social sciences on how to work with such issues as physical and social distancing and getting people to take care of themselves and their families.

Universities have an obligation not only to conduct medical research but also to advance behavioral science and mental health research, Birx said.

“Universities themselves are a reflection of this great land and the communities around this land,” she said, “and really understanding how we remain socially engaged but physically distanced will become critical to how we understand the stressors and the anxieties that people face with this virus.”

Warnings for the future

As the holiday season draws near, bringing with it family gatherings, Birx warned that the latest science has shown these events are fertile ground for the coronavirus to spread. “[It] will have to take all of us as a community to make sure that we protect one another, that we wear our masks, that we physically distance, that we bring those same great behaviors that we have conducted in public into our private lives and into our households,” Birx said.

Birx, whom Vice President Mike Pence has called his “right arm” on the White House task force, said the U.S. may need a cultural shift that continues to encourage mask-wearing. She pointed to countries in Asia that were able to quickly quell the spread of the virus because of the population’s willingness to wear masks.

“One of the reasons Asia adapted so well to Covid-19 was because they had dealt with SARS and MERS and they developed a mask-wearing culture,” Birx said.

However, as a vaccine inches closer to being ready for release, Birx said every state should be looking at the percentage of individuals vaccinated before relaxing any public health measures.

“That [vaccine] will determine how fast as a country and how fast as each state, we come back to whatever that new normal is and it will depend very much on developing that level of immunity across the population,” she said.

Birx also said it’s important that health advice not change with each individual, pointing to President Trump’s determination to return to public events despite a Covid diagnosis Oct. 2. On the same afternoon that Birx was speaking at UVM, the president was holding a rally outside the White House.

“We give the same advice to the president, to the vice president, to the task force members. And I think it’s important we give the same advice to the American people,” Birx said. “We know how to prevent the spread of this virus. It requires us to all change our behaviors to protect one another, to wear a mask, to physically distance, to wash our hands.”

Alek Fleury is a reporter for the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student newspaper, where a version of this article was first published. It was also republished on VTDigger.org.

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