Dr. Deborah Birx, Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, today praised the University of Vermont’s efforts to keep COVID-19 cases among the lowest of any campus in the nation.
“If they can do it here it tells us that we can do it in our communities,” said Birx. “You can see that there is a coalition of the willing to really ensure that students, staff, faculty and communities remain safe.”
Birx’s remarks came during a press conference that took place at the end of a visit to the UVM campus in Burlington. Birx requested the visit as part of her national tour of information gathering on best practices in higher education regarding Coronavirus response.
Birx held separate meetings with UVM President Suresh Garimella, university public health and infectious disease experts, and a diverse group of students. She also connected remotely with representatives from the governor’s office and Vermont Department of Health, and she toured the campus facility where more than 10,000 students get tested every week.
UVM has maintained an extremely low positivity rate since its extensive testing protocol began in early August. As of Oct. 4, the university has received 60,297 student test results. Of those, only 24 have been positive, resulting in a positivity rate of 0.03 percent.
UVM’s science-based strategy of testing, masking, and distancing was developed in close collaboration with our public health experts, and government and community leaders. A focus on testing—pre-arrival, day zero, and then every student, every week—combined with a peer-to-peer approach has meant UVM students are active partners in the university’s success.
At the press conference following her tour of campus, Dr. Birx spoke to what she sees as the keys to UVM’s success in the first months of the semester. “What we have learned from universities that have done well through this fall season is they spent the spring planning. They brought the people together in a multi-sectorial approach as President Garimella did, working with the governor, working with his health team, working with the mayor, working with the community, and working with the staff, faculty and students. And they created an environment of transparency and data sharing — also creating the sense that the data would be used for decision making and any changes that needed to occur based on that data,” Birx said.
She added that mandated testing was also critical to success at all of the schools she has visited, to a great extent because of the constant reinforcement of positive behaviors.
Discussing her meetings with undergraduates and medical students, Birx noted the importance of student leadership in helping UVM maintain among the lowest positivity rates even while providing a significant amount of in-person coursework. To that point, she also lauded the flexibility and creativity that went into re-purposing and maximizing campus facilities for safe instruction, including putting up large outdoor event tents to expand study space.
In closing, Dr. Birx stressed the importance of another pillar of the university’s mission — research. While bio-medical study of the virus and the development of vaccines and treatments have been exceptional worldwide, she also mentioned some of the other disciplines that will play key roles now and going forward. “Behavioral science research, mental health research. How can we better understand the stressors and anxieties that people face with this virus? How we remain socially engaged but physically distanced will remain critical.”