Universities might have the answer to curbing viral spread, White House’s Birx says

Local health authorities should look to universities for examples of the best way to deal with current coronavirus outbreaks, government experts told Southern Indiana officials at meetings earlier this week.

Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force met with hospital staff and county officials from the southwest and southeast corners of the state, which have seen their coronavirus cases, positivity rates, and hospitalizations climb dramatically.

Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota have all seen coronavirus spread in rural areas, Birx said in a telephone interview with IndyStar on Friday. She said she has been meeting with officials in rural areas to ensure that they are aware of how serious the virus can be. People living in rural areas may be wrongly assuming that because they do not live in crowded surroundings they are safe from infection. 

“We really talked about how much spread there is again in the rural area and our concern that individuals in rural areas sometimes believe that they’re naturally socially distanced,” she said. “Often rural communities have smaller community hospitals that can easily get overrun.”

While statewide more than 30% of intensive care unit beds are currently available, in the southwestern corner of the state just under 21% are open, and in the southeastern corner of the state just 11% of beds are open.

Some communities might consider following in the footsteps of universities that have implemented randomized testing programs to find asymptomatic students and quarantine them, which helps curb the spread of the virus, Birx said.

“Because they’re able to find that silent spread, they can do that 10-day isolation of asymptomatic students and prevent that community spread,” she said.

Communities might decide to use the new federal antigen tests being provided to states to conduct random weekly surveillance among populations such as first responders, police, prison staff, health care workers and others to try to ferret out the coronavirus.

Universities that have such programs in place have done a better job at controlling virus spread than others that do not have such programs, Birx said. But even with such programs, campuses such as the University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame have seen recent spikes in cases due to parties and other social gatherings.         

Off-campus many cases of the coronavirus also trace back to smaller gatherings with friends and family members when people let down their guard and their masks, Birx said. She said persuading people to take the steps known to prevent virus spread — wearing a mask, watching social distance, and washing hands — can be challenging, especially because people may be infected and not realize it.

“That concept of being infectious but not showing any symptoms is still a difficult concept,” Birx said. “That is hard for people to get their head around.”

Public health officials need to emphasize that anyone could have a co-morbidity such as diabetes or hypertension that would lead him or her to have a more serious course of the disease and that we all must take these precautions to protect one another, Birx said.         

Contact IndyStar reporter Shari Rudavsky at shari.rudavsky@indystar.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter: @srudavsky.