Coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx visits Long Island with a message: remain vigilant

Two days after President Donald Trump left the hospital, telling Americans not to fear the coronavirus, a key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force visited Suffolk County with a different message to share: remain vigilant against the spread of COVID-19.

“I want to be very clear to the American public,” Dr. Deborah Birx said during a press briefing at Stony Brook University Wednesday afternoon. “We know what to do from a public health standpoint: masks, physically distance, hand hygiene and critically, protecting the vulnerable individuals in our communities — not only the ones in our families.”

Though she avoided directly commenting on the President’s condition and latest comments, Dr. Birx, a physician and diplomat who has served as response coordinator on the task force, swiftly pointed out that new fatalities are reported daily.

“You only need to look at the numbers to know that this is a catastrophic type of infection for some people and in those people, it is worse than the flu,” she said, adding that the public should also get flu shots ahead of the season.

Dr. Birx addressed members of the media following a roundtable discussion with university leadership, health care professionals and students about the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19, as well as how the university has implemented new protocols as in-person learning resumed this semester.

According to university tracking data, three students, one university employee and nine medicine employees tested positive for COVID-19 between Sept. 15 and Oct. 5.

Compared to the fall 2019 semester, where 39% of students lived on campus, just 17% are living on the campus this year.

Social distancing markers and masks are required while on Stony Brook’s campus, where coronavirus testing for students is available. Protocols are also in place to limit large student gatherings and overnight guests for residential students.

Dr. Birx specifically praised the university for marking communal areas with green dots and red crosses to delineate proper spacing between students to maintain safe distance.

Dr. Birx also lauded the university medical center for responding to the crisis and documenting important scientific research that will aid in finding treatments for the coronavirus.

“We were deeply concerned in March and April about what was happening in this county because we could see it and hear it and we could see the human suffering,” Dr. Birx said.

She also advocated for additional surveillance in the community that could help identify asymptomatic cases sooner and thus limit the spread.

Unlike the outbreak of the epidemic in March and April, Dr. Birx said additional outbreaks will not be a result of workplaces, but rather large family and social gatherings.

It’s a top concern for health experts as the holiday season begins and activities move indoors.

“We all want to believe that our family and neighbors and people that we see on a regular basis couldn’t have Covid and we know that people can have Covid and be asymptomatic,” she said, acknowledging that while difficult to wear masks and maintain distance at family gatherings, it’s the safest way forward.

“It’s our job to protect one another,” she said. “You can be out and about, but it takes constant attention to these safety measures.”

Suffolk County reported 109 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday and the infection rate remains around 1%. Statewide, 1,360 new cases were reported Tuesday.

After President Trump and the first lady reported testing positive for the virus Friday, White House physician Dr. Sean Conley reported Wednesday morning that the president remains stable and said he feels “great.”

On Monday, as President Trump returned to the White House after being treated at the Walter Reed Medical Center, he told Americans “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” in a tweet.

Dr. Birx declined to speak about the president’s recovery and said she’s proud of the team at Walter Reed who cared for him.

“I know [the pandemic] has been wearing on the American people,” she said. “But I know together we can do what we need to do to get us through this fall to ensure that we bring [the infection rate] down.”

Wednesday’s visit marked the 20th stop on her tour of U.S. colleges. Dr. Birx participated in similar events at New Jersey universities on Tuesday and is expected to continue visiting schools in the northeast.

She hopes to collect data to help guide universities who opted for all-virtual fall semesters to share lessons learned and begin planning for the spring semester.