Deborah Birx at UT Press Conference, Sept. 15

On Aug. 2, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx described a "new phase" of the COVID-19 pandemic — one where rural and urban areas are equally affected. Today, she discussed its effects on the UT and Knoxville community.

Birx spoke to a small gathering of journalists in UT’s Student Union today, wrapping up a tour of various SEC universities. According to Tyra Haag, Director of News and Information for the Communications Office, UT was happy to host Birx as her university tours came to a close.

“The university was pleased to host Dr. Birx today as she wraps up her tour of select schools in the SEC. She met with various stakeholders, including student, staff and faculty representatives to learn about campus needs and issues,” Haag said. “Dr. Birx reaffirmed the university’s testing plan and emphasized the need to continue practicing physical distance while socializing.”

The conference also comes after UT’s latest COVID-19 update. As of Sept. 14, UT has 680 active COVID-19 cases and 2,156 in self-isolation and quarantine.

Birx had nothing but good words for UT’s handling of the virus, with only a few recommendations about how administration could improve. She paid special attention to physical distancing within classrooms, contact tracing and symptomatic COVID testing.

“It’s clear that they (UT) have a strong testing plan, quarantine and isolation plan in support of the students. What we were excited to hear about was their comprehensive approach to surveillance, utilizing testing starting with wastewater and testing hall-dormitories with pool saliva tests. This is exactly what we recommended several weeks ago in the governors reports."

Birx commends students and staff for following guidelines on campus. She believes very little spread occurs on campus or in a classroom.

“I think with in-person classes, the way they are socially distanced, (both) in this university and in every university, we’ve seen, is remarkable. The planning the SEC schools did to ensure that every classroom is set up to protect the faculty and physically distance students, is really quite good. I find that a lot of students are not being infected in classrooms.”

However, she noticed these guidelines fall by the wayside once they left campus.

“We did see excellent use of masks on campus by students. We want to make sure that activity is happening within the community of students, but also that (Knoxville) community members are also wearing masks,” Birx said.

“We don’t want double standards. We don’t want excellent student activities, as far as mask wearing and physically distancing on campus, and then a set of different activities once they’re in the (Knoxville) community.”

This aligns with a multitude of images surfacing on Reddit, Twitter and other social media platforms showing students breaking physical distancing at off-campus social events. These include gatherings at Uptown Bar & Grill and LiterBoard, as well as general foot traffic on the “Strip” of Cumberland Avenue.

Birx discouraged these actions, saying that such gatherings lead to massive spreading and that students have a responsibility to avoid contributing.

“To every student not following those rules, what you're creating is a mass spread event. We know that’s what those are. We know that’s what’s happening. We don’t want it to happen here. It’s a responsibility to be in college,” Birx said.

“No matter where we are in our life, we have both freedom and responsibility. Every student needs to understand that it’s their responsibility not to participate in super-spreader events.”

Scenes of super-spread events have some students calling for full online course loads. Birx spoke heavily against this action. She pointed to CDC data, which suggests most spreading occurs at private family events.

“A lot of outlets have picked up on the CDC’s discussion of restaurants and the spreading … at indoor dining. What they didn’t pick up on is the fact … the majority of spreading is happening in family gatherings … independent of being in a restaurant or a bar,” Birx said.

With hundreds of students returning home in the case of in-person cancellation, there comes the higher risk of spreading via family members. Similarly, those students organizing in-person social events would continue to create super-spread events elsewhere.

“The most dangerous thing is to close a university or stop having classes, because then you have no eyes on students,” Birx said.

“Once universities have brought students back to campus, the most dangerous thing they could do is close. Then you have both the 70% of students in off-campus housing returning home. Now they’re not relating to their friends and they’re going to create other kinds of off-campus gatherings.”

Instead of in-person cancellation, Birx recommended the university research quarantining time. Current guidelines require students with positive results to quarantine for at least 14 days, but Birx suggests there may be an alternate amount of time needed to recover.

“We really want to know if students have to quarantine for 14 days. I think the university has a plan to evaluate and research this,” Birx said.

She most recommends increased asymptomatic testing. While commending UT for universally testing symptomatic cases, she pointed out the increased prevalence of cases positive cases without symptoms. She recommends that Tennessee as a whole encourage COVID testing for both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases.

“We’ve seen testing decrease in Tennessee and a bit in Kentucky, and we really want those tests that are no longer utilized in emergency rooms and hospitals, be utilized to work with the community to ensure more testing — to be sure they can find more asymptomatic cases,” Birx said.

“We can’t rely on symptoms as our sole indicator that we have cases circulating in the community, as we know half or more of those cases … are asymptomatic.”

Full audio and video of Birx’s conference can be found here.

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