Dr. Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, back to camera, meets with students, faculty and staff on the South Portland campus of Southern Maine Community College on Tuesday. Courtesy / Southern Maine Community College

SOUTH PORTLAND — The nation’s top coronavirus response coordinator met with students, faculty and staff on the Southern Maine Community College’s South Portland campus on Tuesday as part of a nationwide tour of colleges and universities to discuss how to keep students safe.

Dr. Deborah Birx spoke with reporters following a roundtable discussion with students, faculty and staff at Southern Maine Community College’s South Portland campus on Tuesday. Sean Murphy / For The Forecaster

Dr. Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, praised the state’s community college system for keeping ahead of the virus. She urged colleges statewide to remain vigilant and cautioned Mainers in general to continue being cautious, especially with winter coming, when people are more likely to be indoors where viruses can spread more easily.

“Now is the moment to reengage in our personal protection of each other,” she said.

Birx met with SMCC President Joe Cassidy, Maine Community College System President David Daigler and other college officials, along with faculty and students in a roundtable discussion on Oct. 14 that was closed to the public, but Birx met with reporters afterward. She said while she was “very impressed” with how well the virus has been contained in the northeastern U.S., she cautioned that some states, such as Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota are now experiencing outbreaks, even though “four or five weeks ago, you would have seen them look very much like the Northeast.”

Birx stressed the need for proactive testing, as often as once or twice a week, in a community as a good way to keep tabs on the status of the virus.

“It’s always been difficult to understand that you can have an infection, not have symptoms, but be infectious to others, and I think we’re really working with the states in the Northeast to really ensure that they have those kinds of indicators,” she said.

Birx said one thing she is seeing nationwide is that students are listening to advice on how to remain safe and for the most part are wearing masks, not having large gatherings of friends, staying in dorm rooms whenever possible and practicing social distancing.

“We’re really hoping that all Americans heed that message the way the students have,” she said.

Birx said she was pleased to see how carefully Maine colleges in general and the community college system in particular worked to prepare for a safe reopening of classes this fall.

“It was really great to hear how much they have planned,” she said.

Cassidy said this week that there had been no cases of coronavirus on either the South Portland or Brunswick campuses. So far, he said, precautions against the virus appeared to be working.

“We’ve been very pleased,” he said.

The college requires daily screenings for all students commuting to campus and requires common precautions such as social distancing and wearing of masks. The students, Cassidy said, are cooperating with the measures.

“They students have been remarkable,” he said. “They’ve really worked hard to keep themselves safe.”

The school now requires students to learn via teleconferencing software whenever possible, unless some hands-on work, such as welding, requires in-person instruction. In addition, Cassidy said much of the in-person instruction has been moved from the Brunswick campus to South Portland, to reduce the amount of in-person interaction going on in Brunswick, though an exact number of courses moved was unavailable.

Despite Birx’s general recommendation of widespread testing, Cassidy said the college has not instituted routine testing. He said the decision came after discussing the issue at length with the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he noted the college has a 96% commuter rate with about 5,700 students commuting to campus (500-600 of those, he said, commute to the Brunswick campus).

Right now, he said, there are only about 100 students living on the South Portland campus, so the Maine CDC recommended focusing more on screening and prevention. Cassidy did say the college is testing “as needed,” such as when a student from out of state is moving onto campus or if someone connected with the college feels ill.

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