World-renowned health official Dr. Deborah Birx praises Auburn, SEC for COVID-19 response during campus visit

Published: September 24, 2020
Updated: September 28, 2020
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World-renowned health official and physician Ambassador Dr. Deborah Birx—the White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator—commended Auburn University and Southeastern Conference leadership and students for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic during a visit to Auburn’s campus Thursday afternoon.

“It’s really been a privilege to meet with the administration,” said Birx, a White House appointee to the Office of the Vice President to aid in the government’s response to COVID-19. “As we have traveled across the south, it is great to see rival SEC universities coming together to help slow the spread of COVID-19. While visiting Auburn, I was encouraged to see students and faculty members wearing masks and practicing social distancing. I encourage all Tigers to continue to follow the latest guidelines to keep each other safe and healthy.”

Birx spent the afternoon meeting with Auburn leaders, including President Jay Gogue, Provost Bill Hardgrave, Vice President of Business and Finance and Chief Financial Officer Kelli Shomaker, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs Bobby Woodard and Assistant Vice President of Student Engagement Lady Cox. She also met with Auburn Team Physician Dr. Mike Goodlett and Auburn University Medical Center Director Dr. Fred Kam during her time on campus.

Speaking at a press conference in the Harbert Family Recruiting Center at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Birx lauded the efforts of the Southeastern Conference’s 14 universities for working together to battle the pandemic.

“I’ve really been impressed that competitive groups have come together united in a goal of protecting their students and making sure that the communities remain healthy,” said Birx, a leader in the field of HIV/AIDS research. “I think what has come out of this is not an SEC of constant competition, but an SEC that shared information across the schools over the summer. What we’ve learned is the reason these schools have been able to convene and have students here and have in-person classes has been because they spent the summer planning as one, sharing the best ideas with each other when they were really deep competitors before.

“They were really united in understanding how important the students, the faculty, the administration and the community are, and I think we have seen across the SEC really an integrated approach between faculty, staff and students getting high buy-in from each of those organizations. And also bringing the student-athletes back in the June, July timeframe allowed them to really understand how athletes and how students would interact, how the new campus would feel and, more importantly, what to do with quarantining and isolations.”

Her visit to the Plains also included a brief meeting with Auburn Football Head Coach Gus Malzahn, as well as students and administrators, including Student Government Association President Ada Ruth Huntley, Harrison School of Pharmacy’s Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs and Outreach Kimberly Braxton Lloyd, Faculty Senate Chair Don Mulvaney. Birx capped her Auburn experience by meeting with Auburn Mayor Ron Anders, Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller, Auburn Board of Trustees member Bob Dumas and East Alabama Medical Center CEO/President Laura Grill.

Birx toured Jordan-Hare Stadium and observed the university’s social distancing efforts to ensure the safety of football fans who will file into the renowned venue when Auburn hosts Kentucky in the 2020 season kickoff on Saturday morning.

“I think really the social distancing that you see in the stadium, they’re really ensuring that people physically distance when they get up to go to the bathroom or get up, and that’s really critical,” she said. “Don’t forget those parameters when you’re in there, but really to the alumni and any of the parents who come, you need to comply with the same mitigation.”

Birx applauded the efforts of Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, an Auburn graduate, and the state of Alabama for working to create a successful drop in positive COVID-19 cases in recent months.

“When I was last here at the beginning of July, it was a very difficult time in general for Alabama,” said Birx, coordinator of the United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS and U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy. “We saw 95 to 100 percent of every county in Alabama—rural or urban—that had more than 10 percent positive tests for COVID-19. Due to the great work of you all following the mitigation methods put forward by Gov. Ivey from the mask mandate—what we call ‘physically distancing, but socially connected’—and the work you’ve done to protect your family members and decreasing the kinds of gatherings that we know throughout the South created additional spread in households and neighborhoods, what was almost uniformly across Alabama’s high test positivity, we now have all the counties down from 100 percent to around 20 percent in just the last eight weeks. That is the power of each other, when we work together hand-in-hand.”

Birx’s visit to Auburn was the latest in her three-month tour of nearly 20 college campuses across the country. She previously visited nearly all of the SEC schools, as well as the University of Arizona, Baylor University and Virginia Tech University, among others.

“It's really been a privilege to travel across the United States,” she said. “We always come early, unbeknownst to the administration, and we check out what students are doing and try to see what family members are doing. You have to be in the community to understand the different cultures across the United States.

“We have to meet people where they are and really understand people’s daily lives, their unique needs and bring that information back to Washington. That’s why we’re working our way across the states.”

She implored Auburn parents and alumni to follow current students’ example by wearing masks and practicing other mitigation techniques.

“I will tell you the students are being very compliant about their mask wearing and their physical distancing, and I’m sure they’re doing a great job with hand washing,” said Birx, who began her career with the Department of Defense. “To all of the parents and alumni of Auburn students—you need to do the same thing here, and you need to do the same thing at home. That’s just fundamental to what we need to do for each other.”

Birx urged Alabamians to continue to adhere to the governor’s mandates and guidelines, especially with temperatures growing cooler in the area.

“If you look at what happened within two weeks of the mask mandate, you can see the dramatic decline in cases here in Alabama,” she said. “We talked about the importance of keeping those mitigations strong through the fall to get through this fall together, to ensure that people are immunized for flu to really protect one another, keep the rates down, get the rates down even further. Alabama’s test positivity is really dropping, really improving, but we’ve got to do even more.

“We’ve really seen the curves in the university the way we want to see the rest of the state, to really get down to very low case numbers going into the fall and really stay that way until we can have a vaccine.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.