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White House coronavirus adviser warns of possible increased spread in Northeast

Dr. Deborah Birx, head of the White House’s coronavirus response, spoke at Stony Brook University on Wednesday about the “community mitigation”  that needs to be done in New York to contain the pandemic.  Credit: Randee Daddona

A top White House adviser on COVID-19 said at Stony Brook University on Wednesday that there are "early warning signs" in the Northeast of an increased spread of the coronavirus, and she said the type of "community mitigation" being done in New York is key to containing the pandemic.

Dr. Deborah Birx, head of the White House’s coronavirus response, also countered President Donald Trump’s statement Tuesday that COVID-19 is "far less lethal" than the flu.

"You only need to look at the numbers to know it is a catastrophic type of infection for some people," she said, referring to COVID-19. "And for those people, it is worse than the flu."

More than 210,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus. About 12,000 to 61,000 people have died each year from the flu since 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The president had claimed more than 100,000 people die some years of the flu.

Birx addressed reporters inside the Charles B. Wang Center after meeting with Stony Brook officials and students, and leaders of Stony Brook University Hospital.

Asked about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s restrictions in virus "hot spots" in New York City and several areas north of the city, Birx said, "We support governors in their local decision making" because they best understand what is occurring in their states' communities.

The governor ordered the closure of nonessential businesses and schools, and limited worship services to 10 people or fewer, in areas that saw a sharp rise in the percentage of residents testing positive for the coronavirus.

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Birx said that amid signs of an increased spread of the virus in the Northeast, she wanted "to make sure that local officials and others were seeing the same things that we were seeing and that they were ready to make what was needed for community mitigation, as you just heard is being done in New York."

Cuomo imposed the restrictions after photos and videos emerged of large gatherings with most people not wearing masks and standing close together.

Most of the affected areas have large Orthodox Jewish populations. Some Orthodox leaders have criticized the restrictions, and a protest against the measures in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood Tuesday night turned violent.

Asked about the protests, Birx said, "No one group lives in isolation … so really figuring out how we physically distance to ensure people are safe, even when they come together to break bread together is really critical. And I think that community needs to understand that they are within the United States in a community of others. It is our job to protect one other."

Birx said she has not been part of discussions on how the virus spread in the White House. But she said the outbreak is "an illustration of how important these public health measures are: Wearing a mask and being physically distant is key to preventing the spread of this virus."

Birx said the way the virus spreads has changed since the early days of the pandemic.

"It will be what we see across the South, where it involves family members and social occasions and spreading silently in communities," she said.

Birx said she urged Stony Brook students to tell their families to gather safely for holidays such as Thanksgiving, with older adults and others most vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19 eating separately, and then coming together when everyone could wear masks.

Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis said Birx spent more than two hours in four separate sessions with top officials from the university and members of its COVID-19 response team, with students, and with leaders of the hospital.

One point Birx emphasized was the importance of testing, McInnis said. The university is working toward testing all students living on campus once a week, and periodically testing commuter students, faculty and staff, so officials know if the virus is spreading, she said. Although there have been major outbreaks at a number of universities across the country, there have been none at Stony Brook, she said.

Birx praised the university for its work to make the campus safe for its mix of in-person and remote classes, and the hospital for not only treating hundreds of COVID-19 patients a day during the pandemic’s New York peak in March and April, but collecting data to evaluate how to best treat patients, and how the disease affects people long term.

Birx, who said she has been traveling since late June, is not part of the medical team treating Trump. But Birx, a former top official at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where the president was hospitalized after he tested positive for the coronavirus, said of the medical team, "I would never question their judgment."

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