A world-renowned health official, physician, and White House ambassador on Wednesday praised Virginia Tech’s work to develop its own coronavirus testing site and open its campuses amid the global pandemic.
Deborah Birx, White House Coronavirus Response coordinator and U.S. special representative for global health diplomacy, visited Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus on Sept. 16 to discuss with administrators and students the ways that the university is managing COVID-19.
At the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Birx met with several Virginia Tech leaders, including President Tim Sands; Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for Emergency Management; Michael Friedlander, vice president for Health Sciences and Technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute; Frank Shushok, vice president for Student Affairs; X.J. Meng, University Distinguished Professor and director of the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic and Arthropod-borne Pathogens; and Lisa Lee, associate vice president for research and innovation and scholarly integrity and research compliance.
Since June 30, Birx has visited universities in numerous states, mostly in the South, to learn about each institution’s approach to COVID-19 and to offer insight and advice.
Throughout her visits, she has concluded that the universities that have been the most successful in managing COVID-19 on campus worked hard during the summer to develop a plan for the fall semester.
“I think that’s why you’re in a good place, because you really laid a strong foundation,” she said to Virginia Tech leaders after hearing a report from Mulhare about the university’s public safety and contingency operations and plans.
Birx advised Virginia Tech to test students more often, such as 1,000 a day, with a focus on those who do not have symptoms of the coronavirus. Testing only symptomatic people does not provide information for managing the virus, she said. Birx also suggested that universities consider testing students who are in quarantine every other day and possibly shortening the quarantine period.
“We are concerned about the silent spreading,” she said, explaining that the nation needs to increase its sentinel surveillance, which involves using data to analyze the spread of the disease in a community.
Regular student testing, tied to accountability, likely would improve public health behavior, she said.
Additionally, Virginia Tech’s ability to perform its own coronavirus testing, led by Carla Finkielstein, associate professor and researcher at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke, is unique and extraordinary among institutions nationwide, Birx said.
During the meeting, Friedlander said that since April 24, the institute has completed about 31,000 COVID-19 tests and approximately 14,000 of those are for Virginia Tech. The institute also has been approved for saliva testing.
Birx told the group that only a handful of universities nationwide are doing their own COVID-19 testing.
“It’s really critical for the community, and it’s going to be critical for the fall,” she said. “You really are in control of your own destiny because of how much testing you can do based on human personnel rather than the supply chain.”
Birx also encouraged Virginia Tech to consider the risks in holding more in-person classes in the future, including examining air circulation in campus spaces. When analyzing COVID-19 cases in teachers across the country, many contracted the virus in their communities or by traveling, not in the classroom, she said.
Of the land-grant institutions in the country, Virginia Tech has one of the lowest numbers of in-person classes this semester, Birx added. About 7 percent of Virginia Tech courses currently are held in-person, Sands said during a Sept. 3 town hall event.
Five students joined the discussion with Brix and administrators to share their challenges and views of the semester. Sarah Guida, who is chief of the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad and a public health major, said she is proud of how the university is handling the pandemic, but she is concerned about students’ mental health. In particular, campus has been more quiet than usual because of the inability to attend Hokie football games.
“Everyone’s down on the outs,” Guida said. “This isn’t Virginia Tech. We’re a football campus. In the fall, everyone is all hyped up. We are lacking that right now.”
Spencer Hamilton, president of the Interfraternity Council, said it’s been a challenge to figure out how to have fraternity events safely. For example, the fraternities will host recruitment activities entirely online.
Birx said that Americans — including college campuses — can figure out how to be social and safe. For example, students who interact within the same small group of friends, also called pods, should be able to dine together safely.
“There’s a way to be social and learn from people and physically be present and not be infected,” she said.
Overall, Birx commended Virginia Tech for working hard to keep campus safe and open for students.
“It takes a lot of guts to stay open,” she said. “You all are a part of an important moment in time. Really use this time to be creative and innovative. I want to applaud all of you for sticking with it.”