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Visiting Penn State, Birx Stresses Limiting ‘Silent Spread’ of COVID-19

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 COVID-19 pandemic this fall.

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

Following 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 during an outdoor press conference. “[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.

A Penn State alumna and Carlisle native, Birx 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 was not critical of Penn State’s testing approach, but did point to the success of other universities where the entire student population is tested weekly or more. Currently, Penn State aims to test 1% of its campus population (about 700 people) each day through random surveillance testing. The university also offers on-demand testing and has begun wastewater testing to identify potential outbreaks in advance.

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. 

‘I would always be happy if we had 100 percent of students tested weekly, because I think testing changes behavior,’ she said. ‘I would like that both for the visibility of being able to see what happens but also that behavioral change. But I will say the university, through their triangulation of tests, there’s no suggestion that there’s widespread undetected COVID-19 on the campus. What they’re doing is working. I would always like to see more.’

Visiting college campuses across the country, Birx said she has found that those that are not testing all students every week are seeing positivity rates of 10-15% among the student population.

‘What we haven’t seen in our travels with 30 universities… is in-classroom transmission and we haven’t seen transmission to faculty and staff contact traced to a student,’ she said. S’o that I think is important, as well as the community. We haven’t seen large outbreaks in the community to date. I think those three pieces are critically important. There has been spread within students. I think what we want to investigate is whether weekly testing or twice-weekly testing does produce that behavioral change that results in less test positivity and less students getting infected. ‘

Influencing student behaviors, Birx said, impacts the community at large. She specifically noted that although younger individuals may not be affected at the same rate as more vulnerable populations, they can still spread the virus around town, causing it to ultimately reach people who are more susceptible to the virus.

“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.”

Centre County has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases since Penn State’s fall semester began in August, with most corresponding to student testing. The county has had the highest incidence rate in Pennsylvania for five consecutive weeks, though it declined the past two wweks, most recently at 278.9 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Department of Health’s early-warning monitoring dashboard 

The county landed in the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s “red zone” last month after posting both above-average case numbers and positivity rates. The State College area, meanwhile, was briefly the second-fastest-growing coronavirus hot spot in the country in September, according to the New York Times.

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

Since August 7, 3,355 University Park students have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Penn State’s COVID-19 Dashboard. But, she said, Penn State is ‘not unique,’ among universities in having an early spread of COVID-19 cases among students.

“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. “We all need reminders. We’re not perfect, we don’t remember everything every day.”

Through Oct. 4, officers issued 69 total citations for ordinance 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.