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Dr. Deborah Birx warns about COVID spread in small gatherings; praises aggressive college testing as model

Dr. Deborah Birx spoke to the media outside the Broad Institute in Cambridge on Friday afternoon.
Dr. Deborah Birx spoke to the media outside the Broad Institute in Cambridge on Friday afternoon.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — In a visit to the Broad Institute COVID-19 testing facility on Friday morning, Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force warned that the rising number of cases in the Northeast is likely being fueled by asymptomatic spread at small gatherings of family and friends.

“We take down our guard when we are with people we know,” Birx said, speaking outside the high-capacity testing facility that processes more than 1 in every 20 tests conducted in the United States. “And we assume if we know you you couldn’t have COVID.”

Birx also met on Friday with the leaders of several local colleges and universities and commended the institutions on their aggressive testing and low positivity rates. More than 100 schools in the region test students on a weekly basis and send their test swabs for processing at the Broad, which returns them in about 24 hours.

The frequent, recurrent testing on college campuses should serve as a model for communities at large, she said, so they can detect cases as quickly as the schools.

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“It gives me really great hope to see how the college students have modified their behavior because they know what it takes to be safe,” she said. “And they have been able to mostly keep themselves safe with very low test positivity rates.”

Birx commended the Broad Institute for its key role in testing in the Northeast. Soon after the crisis began in March, the lab converted its laboratory into a high-throughput COVID-19 test processing center.

This spring, the institute signed contracts with 108 public and private colleges in the region to provide testing for students, faculty, and staff. Among the 1.7 million tests conducted for the colleges and universities so far, the positivity rate is 0.1 percent, or approximately 1 in 1,000, according to the Broad. The most recent seven-day average positivity rate for the state is 1.0 percent, according to the Department of Public Health.

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The Broad collects samples from the schools and processes the tests for $25 per test, a discounted rate set for the schools compared to the $35 to $50 the institute regularly charges.

Birx was scheduled to meet with Governor Charlie Baker after visiting the Broad Institute.
Birx was scheduled to meet with Governor Charlie Baker after visiting the Broad Institute.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“This is really the best part of our COVID response is when you see hospitals transcend their competitive status, when you see universities transcend their normal competition to work together putting the students and the safety of the students first,” she said.

Birx also toured the testing facility that Boston University has set up on its campus. That institution tests many students twice a week. She was also expected to meet with Governor Charlie Baker later on Friday.

About the Thanksgiving and winter holidays, Birx said she hopes that if college students return to their communities they will have low positivity rates and bring home with them good public health strategies that they learned at college.

If and when students return to campuses after the winter holidays, she said schools should aggressively test and quarantine them as they did when students began school in the fall.

Public spaces and stores and restaurants in the Northeast have largely become safe because of vigilant mask wearing and social distancing, but the problem now is at home, she said.

“People are yearning to be together and believe that if I know you or you are my family member you couldn’t have asymptomatic COVID. And we now learn that you could,” she said.

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Birx, a strong supporter of wearing masks, distanced herself from President Trump, who even after testing positive for COVID-19, has been seen at the White House without a mask and plans to resume campaign travel this weekend.

“You’ve heard very clearly my position on masks and not only is it my position on masks, I wear a mask,” she said.

As fall turns to winter, she said, flu vaccines, masks, and distancing will only become more crucial.

“I welcome vibrant discussions in [the White House coronavirus] task force, but I think it is critical not to confuse the American people,” she said.

Birx said she has been on the road lately but was at the White House two days last week and was tested each time.

“[The president] has his own public health advisors for his own health. I’ve made it clear about what I think is critical for each of us to stay safe,” she said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.