SOUTH PORTLAND — Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, urged vigilance in adhering to health and safety guidelines and stressed the importance of proactive testing during a visit to Southern Maine Community College on Tuesday.

Birx is on a nationwide tour of college campuses and met with Maine Community College System President David Daigler, other system and campus leaders, faculty and students. Although the roundtable discussion involved the critical public health issue of COVID-19, the event was closed to the media. The system referred a request Monday for a reporter to attend the roundtable to a spokeswoman for Birx, who did not respond ahead of the event.

In remarks Tuesday afternoon outside SMCC’s Preble Hall, Birx said the upper Northeast in general has been doing well in terms of COVID-19 positivity rates and overall cases, but she is concerned that could lead to complacency. She also talked about the possibility of implementing proactive testing at community colleges.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, speaks at Southern Maine Community College on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I think community colleges and their students can be good early warning systems, not because we believe they have done anything to expose themselves uniquely to the virus but because community college students are of the community,” Birx said. “They’re often in the community. They work in the community and they’re often in group housing or in their homes. So they could really help us in seeing that early asymptomatic silent spread that we are worried could occur.”

SMCC is the first community college Birx has visited on her nationwide tour to learn about the experience of colleges and universities and share information with them about what might lie ahead.

In general, Maine’s colleges and universities have seen low case numbers this fall, likely due in part to the state’s overall low numbers, but also due to widespread testing. Liberal arts colleges Colby, Bates and Bowdoin are testing students at least twice per week while the University of Maine System conducted two rounds of asymptomatic testing for groups of students upon the return to campus and has followed that up with wastewater testing and testing of random samplings of students and staff.

The Maine Community College System is not conducting widespread testing of students, a decision system President David Daigler said Tuesday is largely due to the different demographic of the student population. Most students live off-campus and interact with or work in the community at a larger rate than occurs at four-year schools with more residential students. About 70 percent of classes are being taught remotely this fall.

To date the community college system has only had one known case among students or staff. A member of the Washington County Community College community reported to officials on Oct. 3 that they tested positive. The college community was notified and the system is not aware of any other positive cases related to that individual, said Noel Gallagher, director of communications and public affairs for the system. There were about 17,300 students enrolled in the community college system as of fall 2019.

Daigler said the system discussed with Birx Tuesday the possibility of testing community college students as a way of measuring asymptomatic spread in the larger community. He said the system would have to discuss such a plan with state officials to figure out logistics and the availability of tests.

“We will be in touch with state public health officials and say ‘What do you think? Where does this fit?’ ” Daigler said. “It’s a compelling argument. When I heard Dr. Birx talk, it’s more about using the community college as a vehicle for trying to manage and understand the spread of the virus then it is about keeping the campus itself safe.”

Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Mills, said the administration is examining many options with regard to testing. Mills, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah also met with Birx separate from the community college meeting Tuesday about Maine’s response to the pandemic.

“Dr. Birx agreed with us that people have to remain vigilant as we head into the winter months to ensure that our hard won progress is not undone,” Mills said in a statement. “She was particularly concerned about social events – dinner parties, family gatherings, parties among young people – that have helped spread the virus elsewhere.

“We talked about even more robust testing to prevent community spread and I impressed upon Dr. Birx the importance of providing continued federal resources to small, rural states like Maine, not just hotspots around the country, to support expanded testing so that we don’t become a hotspot. I appreciated her willingness to listen and to take our ideas back to the White House Coronavirus Task Force.”

Colleges and universities around the country have seen thousands of cases of coronavirus this fall, but Birx said there has been improvement in students’ willingness to adhere to health and safety guidelines.

“That gives me hope we can get that message out to every American, to do what the students are doing,” she said. “They’re wearing masks both in public and private. They’re not having large gatherings with their friends despite the fact they would love to do that. They’re very restrictive about who can be in their dorm rooms. They have been following the guidance for physical distancing and masks.”

Birx was also asked Tuesday whether she thinks it’s safe for President Trump, who tested positive for the virus and was hospitalized earlier this month, to resume holding large campaign rallies like he did Monday night in Sanford, Florida. Birx said she would give the same advice as she gives the people of Maine.

“Physically distance,” she said. “Wear your mask. Don’t gather in large groups inside or outside. This is when we have to care for one another in a very careful way.”


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