TUSCALOOSA — Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, visited the University of Alabama on Friday for discussions with students, faculty and staff, as well as administrators and officials from the University of Alabama System and UA.
Birx heard from members of the campus and local community about the university’s return-to-campus efforts. The visit came as part of her comprehensive tour of universities that have successfully reopened for in-person instruction this fall.
After roundtable discussions and meetings on campus, UA System Chancellor Finis St. John introduced Birx at an afternoon press conference. They were joined on stage by UA President Dr. Stuart Bell and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.
“Her wisdom and her encouragement have been greatly, greatly appreciated,” said St. John of Birx.
In her remarks, Birx outlined that successful return-to-campus efforts across the nation have had similar elements in common. In particular, she said, universities with aggressive testing, tracing and quarantine/isolation protocols have excelled. These elements, of course, are cornerstones of the UA System’s Comprehensive Health and Safety Plan, which was highlighted as a national model at the White House earlier this year.
“What I learned here, and what I was really proud to hear, is both the fraternities and sororities and what they were doing to promote these common sense activities of wearing a mask, social distancing, washing your hands and — out of respect for each other — making sure that if you’re in a social gathering, you still have a mask on and understanding that crowded bars without a mask are not a good situation,” Birx noted of the University of Alabama.
She thanked the university and the System for their assistance in research efforts which could very well have international positive impacts.
The renowned doctor was effusive in her praise of the UA System and the university overall.
“I just want to thank the university for the actions that they took to protect students, the actions that they took to protect the community,” Birx commented.
“[W]hat we’ve seen in really successful institutions like the University of Alabama is a real coalition between students, the administration and the community — working together, following a single goal with 100% buy-in,” she added. “And I think that requires a lot of transparency, and we appreciate the University of Alabama putting up their data [online].”
She advised that this data has shown that transmission of the virus is occurring in the community rather than in the classroom setting since students returned to campus.
Birx then lauded the “strong leadership” of university and System officials before taking questions.
She said the university and the System, in her eyes, get “an extraordinarily high grade” in how they have approached return-to-campus efforts, especially highlighting their meticulous planning and coalition-building.
“Really, I’ve been impressed by … this university … for their detailed plans, but also their willingness to adjust and adapt,” Birx remarked. “And the willingness of the student body to adjust and adapt with the administration and community to ensure that they are safe [and their families and the community is safe].”
The doctor subsequently emphasized that leadership at the student level — including within the Greek community — has been crucial to UA being able to successfully reopen.
“What I’ve seen across the South is people working together to stop the spread of this virus,” Birx summarized.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn