Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force Response Coordinator, visited Stony Brook University on Wednesday, Oct. 7. Above is the full video of the press conference following the discussion. Video by Alek Lewis

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force Response Coordinator, visited Stony Brook University on Wednesday, Oct. 7 for roundtable discussions with students, faculty and hospital staff about the university’s response to COVID-19.

The discussions, which were closed to the public and the media, allowed the university community to talk to Birx about how the university has adapted to social distancing and online learning — and to help her learn more about how Stony Brook University Hospital responded to the crisis. 

Birx’s discussions were centered on the positive aspects of the initial response and recovery phase, rather than current challenges brought by COVID-19, such as the university’s budget concerns.

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“One of the reasons I wanted to come particularly to Stony Brook, is because this hospital, this university, stood at one of the most difficult times in March and April and May and cared for their community in a really open and transparent and careful way,” Birx said.

Birx addressed the media in a press conference after the discussions. She said that Stony Brook is the 20th university that she has visited in a tour of universities around the country. She visited Rowan University in New Jersey on Tuesday and will be making her way north in the coming days.

Birx warned that COVID-19 outbreaks over the next few months will likely be caused by large family and social gatherings, such as holiday celebrations, rather than workplace-driven as they have been in previous months. New York has already seen early signs of this, as clusters of COVID-19 cases emerged in neighborhoods with Othodox Jewish communities after celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur towards the end of September. 

Birx called on students to help enforce safety precautions during upcoming family holiday celebrations. She suggested they make sure people wear masks, and help elderly and other vulnerable family members be as careful as possible. 

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“So [students] are really going to help create and get that out on social media [about] how to come together as a family in a safe way: recognizing how important physical distancing is and how important masks are, particularly as we move indoors in the northeast and the upper midwest,” Birx said.

Birx praised Stony Brook University and hospital’s COVID-19 research and transparency, including their early understanding of the importance of treatments like steroids and their research on long term effects on recovering patients. She applauded the Stony Brook community’s ingenuity in finding ways to better equip the hospital with personal protective equipment.

“[From] the very beginning [the hospital] started keeping records and comparing and trying to understand how to find solutions and care for patients better,” Birx said. “That’s why we have medical research institutions — and you can really see the strength of that here [at Stony Brook].”

She also advocated for more surveillance sites for contact tracing and community spread that would identify and limit the spread of the virus, especially with asymptomatic carriers.

Birx said she was impressed with how the university has reopened. She also thanked Stony Brook staff for making the university “distant accessible,” and including green dots and red x’s to designate where students can and cannot sit across campus.

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When asked for comment on the health of President Donald Trump — who was hospitalized with COVID-19 and released in just three days — Birx said that she trusts the judgement of the doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to do what was best for the president.

Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis, who was present for both the student, and faculty and staff discussions along with Birx, said that students expressed struggling with being socially engaged with decreased physical interaction — and are looking forward to having more in-person classes in the spring semester. 

“Being online for eight hours a day is very difficult, not just from a learning perspective, but also for [students] physically and emotionally,” McInnis said to The Statesman. “And what we’ve heard is that they’re really hopeful that more and more classes can be in person in the spring.”

McInnis hopes that Birx uses her role as a member of the coronavirus task force to advocate for increased COVID-19 testing supplies for the hospital and personal protective equipment.

“I would say that the most important thing that she can take back to the White House is the importance of continuing to help universities and communities like ours have access to everything we need to have a healthy and safe community,” McInnis said.

Undergraduate Student Government (USG) President Huntley Spencer said after his participation in the student discussion that the USG is planning workshops and events that will promote and inform students on involvement in their family’s holiday plans based on Birx’s recommendation.   

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“She was really impressed with the amount of work that Stony Brook has done in response to reopening during the time of [COVID-19] and she was asking [students about] what worked, what didn’t work and what we feel like are the challenges coming along with opening the school and doing it well,” Spencer said. “She was also very interested about the student experience on campus [during] this time.” 

Lawrence Zacarese, Stony Brook University’s Interim Chief of Police, spoke directly to Birx about the initial response to the pandemic and explained the measures Stony Brook took to make sure students stayed healthy.

“We discussed our planning principles, our partnership with the hospital and how we approached [COVID-19] and all the successes we’ve had so far,” Zacarese said.

Dr. Susan Donelan, Medical Director of Stony Brook University Hospital’s Healthcare Epidemiology Department, said that although she was not able to speak to Birx directly, she found the discussion “very informative” and is looking forward to using the information to help guide her department forward over the next few months.

According to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, as of Oct. 11 there is currently one student quarantined for COVID-19 on campus. Twenty-eight students have been infected since the fall semester started.

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