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Dr. Deborah Birx

Stony Brook University

In 2016, Stony Brook University rebranded itself to a new campaign called Far Beyond.

The idea behind the campaign was to highlight the wide range of programs and activities the school offered, since everyone normally acknowledges the university for its medicine, science and technology specialties.

But this year in 2020, the institution proved that it indeed has gone “far beyond” with protecting public health.

Dr. Deborah Birx, head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, visited SBU last week, a stop in a several-month-long tour of different colleges and universities across the United States. But her visit to the local university was different, and she made that clear.

During her press conference, she spoke highly of how Stony Brook has handled the COVID-19 crisis. She said from the start, it was going, well, “far beyond” what other schools, and even hospitals, were doing.

She said that back in March when the university shut down and patients with the virus were filling the rooms, Stony Brook did something different from other institutions — it actually collected data, while continuing to take care of the patients.

“I was listening to the research activities that they started from day one,” she said during the press conference. “And it thrilled my heart to hear from them that their number one thing was collecting data and collecting information in real time.”

It’s right to give credit where its due, and Stony Brook, both on the medical and campus side, has done good work in keeping the number of cases down. The university’s COVID dashboard reports just two students, one university employee and four Stony Brook Medicine employees have currently tested positive as of Oct. 11. Better yet, the school has been upfront in where those cases are located and how it is handling them.

This is compared to places like SUNY Oneonta, which had to close back in August after hundreds of students tested positive after a large super-spreader party. The Oneonta dashboard reports 712 confirmed cases among students since the start of the fall semester.

It’s also not to say that SBU has not made stumbles, especially in communicating with students.

Right off the bat during the start of the pandemic, students were rightfully upset at how the university handled the virus. In March, dorming students were shocked when each received an email saying they needed to move out, go home or find shelter elsewhere because the campus was officially closed.

Students said they felt rushed, and felt the university wasn’t being truthful or transparent with everything being so abrupt. Some international students couldn’t even go home since their countries were in lockdown.

But the students are back, and cases remain low. Is it because of the incentives the university has taken with social distancing guidelines, removing of sports and recreational activities, hybrid learning and sanitizing stations? Or is it just because Stony Brook is not a “party school” and the students there really don’t congregate as at some of the schools upstate, like Oneonta. It’s also important to note the number of students living on campus has fallen from 39% in 2019 to 17% this fall.

With a new president installed at SBU, Maurie McInnis, we think that communication with students has improved. Every person, every institution has been impacted by the pandemic. The students, who feel they are paying a lot for what at times must feel like a mostly online education, need that person-on-person interaction to let their voices be heard, even if it’s behind a clear plastic barrier.

Nonetheless, Stony Brook gets high praise from both us and those involved in the national response to COVID-19, as well as Birx, for going “far beyond.” We kindly ask that the university keeps it up, for the sake of both your students and the wider community.

Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Maurie McInnis at Stony Brook University’s Wang Center on Wednesday. Photo by Julianne Mosher

The head of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force visited Stony Brook University this week to talk to faculty, students and administrators about college life during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Oct. 7, Dr. Deborah Birx met in a private roundtable talk with SBU representatives to gauge how everyone feels returning to campus, as part of a several-month-long tour of colleges across the country. The meeting lasted more than two hours, president of the university Dr. Maurie McInnis said, deeming it a successful discussion.

“We want to find a pathway forward for other universities, and when we want to use what we have learned to make it available to others.”

— Dr. Deborah Birx

“She was excited about what we’ve been doing on campus and at the hospital,” McInnis said. “We also learned an enormous amount from her about what we can expect in the fall.”

The roundtable went over time, and so Birx only gave about 15 minutes to assembled reporters.

With recent news of many colleges across the state struggling to stay open with an uptick in COVID-19 cases on their campus, Birx praised the university for how they initially handled the pandemic back in March, up until now.

She added that she was particularly excited to visit Stony Brook because the university and hospital “stood out at one of the most difficult times in March, April and May in a really open, transparent and careful way.”

“I was listening to the research activities that they started from day one,” she said. “And it thrilled my heart to hear from them that their number one thing was collecting data and collecting information in real time.”

Birx said the university’s research was fundamental in the beginning, by comparing and trying to understand how to find solutions with better care for patients.

“That’s why we have medical research institutions,” she said. “I think you could really see the strength of that here.”

She commended staff for their “months of planning” by implementing social distancing throughout the campus with signs, stickers on the floor and seating placed six-feet-apart from each other — things she hopes other colleges and universities will follow.

“We want to find a pathway forward for other universities, and when we want to use what we have learned to make it available to others,” she said. “It’s been really a privilege to be here.”

Reporters asked the head of the president’s coronavirus task force about President Donald Trump (R) testing positive for COVID-19, his trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and his most recent return to the White House, especially his apparent eschewing of wearing a mask for photo ops despite being contagious.

Birx replied, “We have been on the road, so I’ve been very concerned about what’s happening in the rest of America.” She added she would not question the judgement of the Walter Reed doctors, and she is “very proud of the physicians, between the Navy and the army, that are caring for him.”

During her visit, she asked for insight from students, asking them for their comments and concerns for the remainder of the school year.

“Meeting with students and really understanding what the university did to make sure that the students and the community were safe, I think really needs to constantly be applauded,” Dr. Birx said. “And I think understanding what’s happening with the commuting students and ensuring that they’re safe, has also been really important.”

Birx asked students for insight regarding communication with family members during holiday gatherings this upcoming season.

“I think there are still people waiting for the epidemic to look like it looked before,” she said. “It’s not going to look like that. It’s not going to be a workplace driven epidemic. It is going to be what we’ve seen across the south — where it involves family members, social occasions and spreading silently in communities before and outside of the workplace.”

But she also mentioned what she’s anticipating, and her own, personal, concerns.

“I feel like at this moment, in many of the areas of the Northeast county by county, we still don’t have enough what we would call ‘eyes on the epidemic,’” she said. “What do I mean by that? Really active surveillance sites so that we can see early infections before we see hospitalizations, so we can do community mitigation.”

By having eyes on the virus, it can be more easily contained especially among non-sick asymptomatic individuals.

“I think working with the county, the university can use their data and their ability to translate information to be in regular communication with the community about where the virus is and where it isn’t,” Birx said.

“We’ve demonstrated that we can learn, live and work together safely,” McInnis said.

But before Birx left, she gave one big piece of advice for heading into the fall season. “Please get your flu shot.”