BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech knows droplets.
And that, U.S. Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx told news outlets gathered on campus Wednesday, could help public health policy better address the spread of COVID-19.
Tech was the last stop on Birx’ tour of about a dozen major universities across the Upper Midwest and the South that have reopened during the pandemic. She spoke to reporters outside the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, where she had earlier met with Tech President Tim Sands and a range of university officials, researchers and students.
“We wanted to finish here at Virginia Tech because we heard they were bringing innovation and a solution-based” approach to the COVID epidemic, Birx said. “And we wanted to hear from the faculty and students what they were doing and what they were finding.”
Birx praised Tech’s efforts to test wastewater from campus buildings in hopes of identifying possible hot spots before outbreaks emerge and to retool some of the campus research labs to do COVID-19 testing.
The government asked universities to increase testing capacity back in March as the pandemic began its sweep across the nation, Birx said. At that time, testing capacity was limited to a maximum of 1 million tests a day.
Universities across the country had labs dedicated to veterinary, agricultural and viral research that could be used for COVID-19 testing, she said. But only a handful, including Tech, answered the call.
“This is a university that understood the need, understood the gap and was willing to self-sacrifice their own research opportunities to bring additional testing solutions to the people of this community and this university campus,” she said. “I’m really proud of what they’ve done.”
She also pointed to Tech research on how droplets that could contain the novel coronavirus move around in enclosed spaces. That work could help refine physical distancing guidelines, she said.
Birx also brought some advice to Tech.
“Optimally, I would like them to be able to test every student at every two-week interval,” she said.
That data could shed light on how the virus spreads over time.
Birx said she talked with Tech officials about what they need to do to prepare students to leave campus at Thanksgiving and not take the virus home to their families.
The university will shut down in-person classes during the holiday break, and students will finish the last weeks of their fall semester coursework remotely.
“Coming in, the students had some of the lowest test rates in the U.S.,” Birx said. “We’re asking them to take similar precautions when they go home.”
Birx is a world-renowned expert on HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research and global health. She is ambassador-at-large at the U.S. State Department and is the country’s Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.