By Vivian Roach | Staff Writer, Video by Sarah Gill | Executive Producer
White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx visited Baylor on Monday for a coronavirus roundtable talk with administration, faculty, students and local officials about key components to keeping campus open.
About two weeks ago, Dr. Birx said on a conference call with various school presidents and chancellors that she wanted to tour college campuses that had opened and stayed open. President of McLennan Community College Dr. Johnette McKown, who was on the call, suggested to President Linda Livingstone that Baylor be on the tour. The next Saturday, Livingstone sent an email inviting Birx to campus, and the following Thursday the tour was scheduled.
After the roundtable talk, Birx said those universities that have opened and stayed open have had comprehensive plans with focused detail to the needs of students. Plans that included all kinds of testing, isolating the positive, contract tracing, ability to quarantine and strong outreach within the community.
“It is the level of detail that is needed for planning and that’s what we have found in successful universities and that is what Baylor has here,” Birx said.
Birx has toured several institutions across the southern part of the country to understand what is in the “secret sauce” for these institutions that have opened and stayed open.
“Figuring out how we stay reunited, that is part of our reason for these visits, to really put together a playbook of what universities are doing to really care for their students, care for their communities and ensure that these institutions of higher learning continue and are able to move forward,” Birx said.
At Baylor, surveillance testing and the university’s responsibility within the community is what impressed Birx the most.
“I would say Baylor is at the top-end of universities with their degree of surveillance. The CDC reported 40% are asymptomatic, but we’ve always known younger people are more asymptomatic, and I think other groups are learning that now,” Birx said.
She urged the importance of testing on campus and in the community for those asymptomatic cases that might be provoking the community spread. In comparing the county and city to the campus, Birx said the county and city are considered to be in a COVID-19 “red zone,” at 9.9% to 10% positivity of cases, higher than the college and university.
According to the COVID-19 dashboard, since Aug. 1, there have been a total of 2,219 surveillance tests done, with a 1.3% positivity rate and 0.8% in the last seven days. In clinical tests, the school reported a 3.5% positivity rate since Aug. 1, and a 3.8% rate in the last seven days.
“We will really work with the college and university and with the community to surge testing here,” Birx said. “We have the ability to surge federal testing into an area. We want to ensure we are reaching those in the community.”
As for surveillance and asymptomatic testing, Birx said she would always like more. She urged those who know they’ve been exposed to go get tested. Additionally, they want to work with the school to look underneath by doubling surveillance testing.
“But I think they’re off to a great start,” Birx said. “And what’s critically important is they thought about it. They thought about doing more than just symptomatic testing. And I think that’s really the key piece. It gives us a very strong foundation to build on.”
Dr. Jason Cook, vice president of marketing and communications and chief marketing officer, said Birx’s visit was a learning experience for them too.
“Today was really about sharing a lot of things we have done, some lessons learned from opening campus, but also to demonstrate and hear some questions that we have,” Cook said. “How can we all come together as higher education to help push back on COVID-19?”