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Birx sees 'troubling signs' in Northeast, warns of spread at social gatherings

By TAYLOR HARTZ | The Day, New London, Conn. | Published: October 9, 2020

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HARTFORD, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — During a visit to the University of Connecticut's Hartford campus Thursday morning, Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the White House's coronavirus task force, said she sees ''troubling signs' of a COVID-19 spike in the Northeast and warned that social gatherings, especially indoors once the weather gets colder, will be the main cause of the virus's spread.

Birx said that unlike in March and April, when the virus was making its way through many workplaces and public spaces, the region's most recent uptick is likely coming from gatherings in people's homes or other indoor spaces.

"This is really a message to everyone in Connecticut, the kind of spread that we're seeing now is different than the type of spread we experienced in March and April," she said. "I want to make it very clear, what we did in the spring is not going to work in the fall."

The difference, she said, is that as more people begin to gather indoors or without their masks with friends and family — especially as the holidays and cold weather approach — there are more opportunities for infected persons who are asymptomatic to spread the virus.

"The spread of the virus is no longer happening in the workplace where people have taken precautions, it's happening in homes and social occasions where people are taking their masks off and letting down their guard and not socially distancing," Birx said.

She acknowledged similarities between the Northeast and other regions, like the South, that have experienced spikes in positive cases after seeming to have the spread under control. But there is still hope that the Northeast won't be hit with another wave, and that's why Birx came here.

"I came to the Northeast to really make it clear that we have the ability within ourselves to really prevent others from getting infected and prevent us from getting infected," she said.

Connecticut has seen an uptick in cases in recent weeks. The latest COVID-19 data from Gov. Ned Lamont's office shows a 1.6% positivity rate in the state, nearly double the rate for much of the summer, and schools in southeastern Connecticut, including in East Lyme and Groton, have been closing due to positive cases within their communities.

But a resurgence isn't inevitable. The uptick has just begun in the Northeast and it's still possible to contain it, Birx said.

Containment, she said, can be done by continuing to be diligent about social distancing and wearing masks in public spaces and private ones, including the homes of family members and friends. People need to be as diligent in the homes of people they trust as they are in public spaces.

"What we're seeing in the community is much more spread occurring in households and in social occasions," she said. "Small gatherings where people have come inside and taken off their mask to eat or drink or socialize with one another, believing that the friend down the street, or the friend from out of town, or that family member who came in certainly could not have (COVID-19) because they look fine."

Birx said that her suggested precautions are clear and proven ways to control the spread of the virus, and that she would give the same advice to the president of the United States as she would to the American people: wear masks, stay socially distant and practice good personal hygiene.

President Donald Trump, who is battling COVID-19 along with first lady Melania Trump and some members of his administration, recently said on Twitter that the American people shouldn't be afraid of the disease. He is often seen in public, surrounded by members of his staff or crowds of supporters at rallies, without wearing a mask.

Birx did not comment directly on the president's behavior but said that wearing a mask whenever around someone outside your immediate household "would always be (my) advice to every individual in this country."

Birx has traveled around the nation since June, speaking to local leaders about their policies and practices during the pandemic. On Thursday she met with local elected officials, including Gov. Ned Lamont, health care professionals and leaders from UConn. She commended the university for its wastewater testing program that she said will help the school target where the virus is, how it's spreading and how to protect students and staff.

Connecticut was the 32nd state Birx visited and she said she came to the Northeast because of "troubling signs." She said that the slight uptick the state is seeing in the positive cases "is just the earliest indicator" that there's ongoing spread in communities.

She said she thinks the Northeast has been prepared throughout and thinks the governors and mayors have been doing a great job. But, she said, having a plethora of outdoor activities available has also kept cases down. As the weather starts to get colder, that will change.

In the South, she said, there were upticks in positive cases when outdoor temperatures rose and people headed indoors to cool off in the air conditioning.

The same thing can be expected here when temperatures drop and folks head inside and turn their heat on, she said. When heating is turned on, she said a decrease in humidity can cause moisture droplets to linger longer in the air, making indoor gatherings all the more dangerous.

"To all the people in Connecticut out there, really, if you are gathering together indoors, assume someone in that group that's outside of your family household could be positive and continue to wear your mask and be physically distant," she said. "We can figure out together how to be physically distant but socially engaged with one another."

t.hartz@theday.com

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