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White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx Visits Penn State

White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx visited Penn State Wednesday to meet with university officials and learn more about its response to the coronavirus pandemic this fall.

Birx placed an emphasis on increasing testing capabilities and limiting “silent spread” throughout the community moving forward.

During a closed-door meeting at the Penn Stater Conference Center, Birx said she discussed coronavirus testing, mitigation efforts, and future steps with officials from a handful of Penn State campuses as well as a few students.

“As with every university that I have been to that has successfully opened, it started with really excellent planning,” Birx told reporters. “[Today’s meeting] was a great conversation with the students and really probing to the students why things were going well and why the majority of the students were able to follow the guidance and remain COVID-negative.”

Birx said she heard three critically important factors from students. The first, she said, was that students recognized they needed to make sacrifices to keep themselves and others safe. She added students also wanted to limit spread within classrooms and maintain those behaviors for a long period of time.

Birx, both a Penn State alumna and Central Pennsylvania native, specifically touted Penn State’s messaging surrounding the pandemic, including its “clever” Mask Up Or Pack Up campaign.

“I think they really tapped into the fact that students wanted to be on campus and thus would mask up to be able stay,” Birx said.

Birx seemed impressed with Penn State’s efforts so far and added her team hopes to learn from the university’s approach this fall.

Moving forward, Birx hopes Penn State increases its testing capacity and follows the leads of other universities such as Boston University, which tests its entire student population each week. She suggested regular weekly testing could shift student behavior and limit irresponsible actions.

Those actions, Birx said, impact the community at large. She specifically noted that although younger individuals may not be affected at the same rate as other vulnerable groups, they can still spread the disease around town.

“Every governor has done a good job protecting nursing home populations much better than we did in the spring,” Birx said. “Now, we have to stop the silent spread before it gets to them.”

Birx reiterated the importance of finding that “silent spread” throughout her media availability and implored individuals to comply with testing and guidelines to make it a reality.

“You have to find the silent spread in the community,” she said. “The only way to do that is to get populations willing to come forward and be routinely tested.”

“Silent spread” could certainly be a factor in local surges cases this fall. Centre County landed in the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s “red zone” last month after posting both above-average case numbers and positivity rates. State College, meanwhile, was previously labeled as the second-fastest-growing coronavirus hot spot in the country by the New York Times.

Testing, of course, is perhaps the best bet to limit such spread. Birx said Penn State will attempt to increase testing by developing antigen testing that doesn’t rely on existing labs or supply chains. The university is pursuing certification for its Testing and Surveillance Center that could expand capacity.

Currently, Penn State aims to test 1% of its campus population (~700 people) each day through random surveillance testing. The university also offers on-demand testing at Pegula Ice Arena and is utilizing wastewater testing to find cases ahead of time.

Since August 7, 3,355 University Park students have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Penn State’s COVID-19 Dashboard. However, she believes that number isn’t much cause for concern.

“I think every university suspected there would be spread within the on-campus and off-campus students just because of the way they were living and the way they were exposed,” Birx said. “Congregate living spaces do create more spreading events.”

In August, State College passed a new coronavirus mitigation ordinance that gives law enforcement authority to issue citations and $300 fines to those found violating mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines. Birx believes that ordinance, now enforced on campus by Penn State Police, is only one piece of the puzzle, though.

“I think it has to be two messages: consequences and accountability for those who are not going to follow the rules, and then positive reinforcement for the students who are following the rules,” Birx said.

Nonetheless, Birx said she supports local mandates on mask-wearing and social distancing that keep residents on their toes.

“We all need reminders. We’re not perfect. We don’t remember everything every day,” Birx said. “But retailers who have those signs and remind us when we go in, that’s constant reinforcement to that behavior change that we’re all trying to make for each other and for our families and for our communities.”

Since the ordinance’s enactment in the borough, officers have issued 70 total citations for guidance violations.

With Penn State football’s season just nine days away, both university and borough leaders have implored students, fans, and residents to continue prioritizing safety and limiting travel this fall.

“This football season, as unusual and unfamiliar as it may be, promises to again be one in which our Nittany Lions show the nation the amazing talent, character and skills of our student-athletes and coaches,” Penn State President Eric Barron said. “It also will be a time to show the nation and the world that we value and uphold our responsibility for the health and safety of one another…This is our opportunity to remind everyone why we are and always will be Penn State proud – together or apart.”

Penn State already canceled its upcoming spring break to reduce student travel and potential virus spread.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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