Dr. Deborah Birx

Birx Visits Cambridge, Tells People Not to Let Their Guard Down as COVID Cases Climb

The meeting with Dr. Deborah Birx comes after the White House coronavirus response coordinator visited the Broad Institute at MIT

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Days after Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker called President Donald Trump "incredibly irresponsible" for downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19, the governor met at the State House with one of the White House's senior coronavirus response leaders, who was in the state to hear from university presidents about college testing.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, visited Boston University on Friday morning before traveling across the river to Cambridge where she took part in a roundtable talk at the Broad Institute with area university presidents to learn more about how testing is being handled on college campuses.

Birx then visited the State House, where she met with Baker in his office for roughly an hour, but did not take questions entering or leaving. She wore a mask in public, both in Cambridge and at the State House.

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"I wear this mask to tell every American I think this is important," Birx said during a press conference outside the Broad Institute.

Baker earlier this week criticized Trump for his personal behavior toward the virus, including the president's decision upon returning to the White House from Walter Reed Medical Center after his COVID-19 diagnosis to remove his mask and record a video in which he told Americans "don't let it dominate you."

As a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, Birx became a familiar face in the spring as the virus began to sweep through the country.

More recently, the president has relied less on Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease experts, and more on the advice of Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who has shown skepticism about the science of mask wearing and promoted "herd immunity," with a government goal of not eliminating the virus, but protecting the most vulnerable.

Birx was asked if she is completely on board with what Atlas is telling the president.

"You've heard very clearly my position on masks," she said. "And not only is it my position on masks, I wear a mask."

"I think it's incredibly irresponsible for the president or any other public official to ignore the advice of so many of the folks in the public health, epidemiological and infectious disease community who have made it absolutely clear to us all, time and time again, that this is a contagion — it is massively contagious — and it will wreak havoc on many people if they become infected," Baker said.

Neither Baker's office nor the White House provided details about what the two discussed during their meeting, but Birx was visiting as part of her nationwide tour of college campuses to learn more about their testing procedures. She was in Hartford on Thursday on the city campus of the University of Connecticut, and she also met with Gov. Ned Lamont.

Birx has expressed concerns about some of the trends she's observed in recent weeks across the Northeast, likening it to what happened in the south over the summer as people took shelter from the heat indoors in air conditioning.

"We do see some of those early signs that we saw across the south after Memorial Day, a sense that there's early, asymptomatic silent spread occurring in communities," Birx said in Cambridge, according to CBS Boston.

"Now is the time to act in the Northeast and that means we have to change our personal behaviors," she said.

Like Baker, Birx blamed social gatherings and relaxed personal behavior, rather than workplaces or restaurants, for the recent spike in cases across Massachusetts and other New England states.

"That's what we saw happen in the South. People let down their guard when they were with friends and family and they took off their mask and they shared dinner or they shared drinks inside and those became spreading events," Birx said. "And so to the communities that are seeing upticks, please bring that same discipline that you're bringing to the public spaces into your households and really limit engagement with others outside your immediate household."

The Broad Institute, which is an independent research institution affiliated with Harvard University and M.I.T., is one of the state's main COVID-19 testing facilities, and has processed over 3 million tests since March. The institute is also providing testing support for over 100 public and private colleges in the area, and processes as many as 70,000 tests a day.

The White House did not share a list of who participated in the roundtable with Birx Friday morning, but before her visit to the Broad Institute, she and Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist Irum Zaidi toured BU's Clinical Testing Lab at the Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering with BU President Robert Brown and testing lab head Catherine Klapperich, according to the university.

The lab at Boston University has processed more than 200,000 tests in less than three months, with some undergraduate students who have returned to campus for in-person instruction this fall getting tested at least twice weekly.

In the last week, Boston University reported 30,602 tests of 21,061 individual students, faculty and staff, with a positive test rate of less than 1% in all categories. The university reported two positive tests on Thursday, bringing its total since July 27 to 143 from the 211,615 tests conducted.

Thirteen Boston University students are currently in isolation.

State health officials on Wednesday reported 211 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 associated with higher education, bringing the total to 1,058.

The Department of Public Health has started reporting the aggregate data on college and university testing every Wednesday, but does not break it down by institution.

Baker aides disclosed his meeting with Birx Friday morning as his administration prepares next week to update revenue projections for the current fiscal year to account for the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus.

Heading into the long weekend, Baker had just one press conference this week in Salem where he talked about the state's preparations for Halloween and how cities like Salem were adapting to COVID conditions to help businesses survive.

Last week, Baker had signaled he intended this week to give an update on the state's stockpile of personal protective equipment heading into the fall, but that press conference hasn't happened.

"But we've continued to buy PPE. And by the way, we now have a bunch of companies in Massachusetts that manufacture it as well, which is great. And I think I feel pretty good about where we're going to be this fall, but we we definitely need to have a presser on this," Baker said last week.

State House News Service/NBC
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