Doctor Deborah Birx recommended surge testing.

Coronavirus and Inequality

Published — August 19, 2020

On private call, White House’s Birx recommends robust testing for colleges

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House Coronavirus Task Force leader, speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol Complex, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/John Raby)

The advice comes as nine states remain in the ‘red zone’ and some universities see outbreaks.


White House Coronavirus Task Force leader Dr. Deborah Birx, on a private call with state and local leaders Wednesday, recommended that universities test students returning for fall classes as well as set up “surge” testing.

“Each university not only has to do entrance testing,” she said, according to a recording of the call obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. “What we talked to every university about is being able to do surge testing. How are you going to do 5,000 samples in one day or 10,000 samples in one day?”

Birx said several states had plans for how to accomplish that complicated task — plans she promised the White House Task Force would share later with leaders of other states. The White House has insisted that states manage the response to the coronavirus pandemic while the federal government plays a supporting role.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend entry testing for all college students and staff because the method has not been “systematically studied.”

Birx’s advice came after coronavirus outbreaks forced the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Notre Dame to revert to online classes.

More than 600 American colleges and universities are returning to in-person classes or mostly in-person classes this fall, according to a tracker from the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College. Most are testing students as or before they return, said Katie Felten, interim assistant director of the initiative, with some mailing test kits to students’ homes before they travel to campus.

Schools differ in how they plan to approach testing after resuming classes; Davidson is testing each student every week, Felten said. Some small colleges, such as Ohio Wesleyan University and Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, plan to test students periodically throughout the semester.

Some large state schools, such as the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have said they have the ability to test thousands of students daily. 

Birx congratulated state and local leaders for improving coronavirus numbers,  referencing a recent version of a weekly White House report to governors that the Trump administration has not made public. She said in the last week four states improved enough to exit the most severe classification, known as the red zone — in which states have more than 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and more than 10 percent of tests are positive. That leaves nine states in the red zone, most of which have declining case rates and percentages of positive tests, Birx said. She did not say which states remained in the red zone.

Birx said she remains concerned about outbreaks in Honolulu; small cities in Texas and Georgia; California’s Central Valley; along with Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

On the same call, which was closed to the press, Health Secretary Alex Azar said the administration’s Operation Warp Speed expects several vaccine candidates to join two others in large-scale, phase 3 trials soon and have tens of millions of doses ready to distribute by the end of the year. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the Trump administration still wants Congress to pass more coronavirus relief funding.

“We continue to work with the Senate on a bipartisan basis to figure out if we could do additional financing,” Mnuchin said. “We very much support additional fiscal response. I think, as you know, our talks have broken down somewhat.”

The White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs has been offering the private briefings to state and local leaders for months, though Birx was not a regular guest until recently. Typically, several hundred people are on the calls, said Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Correction: This post has been updated to correct a misspelling. Katie Felten’s last name was previously misspelled as Felton.

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