Students at institutions like Plymouth State University are showing the way to overcome COVID-19, according to United States Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx, MD. “We’re winning now on university campuses because of students—they’ve changed their behavior,” she says.
On October 12, Plymouth State welcomed Birx to campus for a presentation on the University’s response to COVID-19, a tour of campus facilities engaged in relief efforts, and a visit to our on-campus testing site. She gave remarks on trends across university and college campuses nationwide and on the future outlook of the pandemic.
Ambassador-at-Large Deborah Birx is the coordinator of the United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS and US Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy. In April 2020, the White House appointed the world-renowned global health official and physician to the Office of the Vice President to aid in the whole of government response to COVID-19 as the coronavirus response coordinator.
“Not many universities believe in their students enough to open their doors,” says Ambassador Birx, who noted that many institutions remain in online-only mode. The key to the success of PSU and others, she maintains, was comprehensive summer planning along with work by facility managers, mask mandates, and regular testing. The most critical factor, however, is having students work together to prevent the spread of COVID.
The visit to New Hampshire was especially meaningful in that it included family time with her brother, Plymouth State President Donald Birx. “Over the past eight months, not only has Deb been a trusted resource for the nation, but she’s been a sounding board for me, PSU, and the entire University System as we planned for the reopening of campus and the continuation of in-person classes throughout the semester,” says President Birx. “She has given us advice and shared perspectives that have given us the confidence to move forward.”
As the crisis deepened this spring, Ambassador Birx’s team began writing weekly state reports, which incorporated data from over 3,200 counties to provide specific recommendations. Mask mandates were proposed not only for their direct health benefits—“We know masks work” she said repeatedly on her PSU visit—but also as important signals to retailers that reopening could be done while minimizing risks.
Ambassador Birx’s interest in reopening colleges and universities transcends their benefits to students. The shuttering of higher education nationwide this spring deeply affected the “brain trust” of research platforms that she counts on, and since schools reopened they have provided critical analysis and data not only epidemiological questions, but also on social concerns such as the impact of isolation and depression.
Her years of experience gained in combatting AIDS/HIV in Africa have shown Birx how to battle America’s COVID outbreak. “Step by step, day by day, community by community, mapping progress, and listening to people,” she says. Since June, she has listened and learned about the nation’s headway by traveling more than 16,000 miles by car to 37 states and 27 universities. First-hand observations of what communities are doing on their respective Main Streets and how business is transacted in coffee shops factor into her recommendations.
Her discussion on serious pandemic matters was leavened by family recollections. The Birx siblings received Heathkits, electronic products that required assembly, and Ambassador Birx learned to solder at age five and helped build a color television at age ten. “It was great STEM education,” she recalls, and her worldview and commitment to service were also molded at an early age by missionaries who regularly visited the family home.
“Physically distanced and socially engaged” is Ambassador Birx’s mantra for dealing with family situations, whether visiting with her New Hampshire relatives or when asked what we all can do when considering upcoming holiday gatherings. “This virus can spread among families and friends if you take your masks off and don’t wash your hands,” she cautioned. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re not taking masks off in small gatherings.”
She cautioned that colder weather is steadily driving us indoors and may be foreshadowing a silent spread of the virus. “We’re seeing the same worrying signs as we saw in the south with air conditioning in the summer,” she says.
Recognizing that behavioral changes take a long time and are difficult to achieve, Ambassador Birx models positive reinforcement. Language is important, and instead of telling people where they can’t sit, she recommends letting them know where sitting is permitted.
Ambassador Birx’s extensive experience and detailed inquiry has convinced her that until a vaccine is readily available, the proper course is to continue with the protocols that PSU has adopted: social distancing, mask wearing, and regular testing.
“We really know how to prevent spread of this virus and working together we can.”