In Madison Visit, Deborah Birx Urges More Testing Of COVID-19 ‘Silent Spreaders’

White House Task Coronavirus Task Force Member Speaks To Lawmakers, UW Officials At State Capitol

Dr. Deborah Birx wears a mask as she speaks at a lectern
Dr. Deborah Birx speaks to reporters about COVID-19 in Wisconsin on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Angela Major/WPR

Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, met with a group of lawmakers and University of Wisconsin officials at the state Capitol Friday, at a time when hospitalizations have soared and daily cases of COVID-19 are at an all-time high.

This is the second time Birx has been in Madison over the course of the pandemic. She first came to UW-Madison campus before the fall semester got underway, urging college students to avoid crowds and wear masks ahead of the Labor Day weekend. Many didn’t, and there were outbreaks at several UW System campuses that prompted classes to temporarily go online and some dorm residents to quarantine.

Since then, positive cases have dropped substantially.

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Speaking on Friday, Birx credited universities for quickly controlling the outbreaks and urged more testing community-wide of asymptomatic people who may carry the disease.

“What we know is happening now is that people are coming for testing because they feel like they’ve been exposed or may have symptoms. It’s also a significant number of people we call the ‘worried well’ who are very concerned about COVID. What we need to find are the individuals who are most likely to be out and about, younger individuals who have no symptoms of this virus but are carrying it and spreading it to others,” said Birx.

For seven days straight Wisconsin has had daily case counts above 3,000, and on Friday that number jumped to a record high of 4,378. Deaths and hospitalizations are also on the rise. Birx noted that Wisconsin has the fourth highest number of positive coronavirus cases per capita in the country.

Mask wearing is one of the key strategies advised by health officials to contain the virus, but Birx would not say whether masks should be mandatory, only that she has been supportive of every governor who has required they be worn. Wisconsin has a mask mandate, which is being challenged in court.

“Masks do work. What we’re trying to decide and what we need everyone to work on (is) how far do we have to be physically distanced when we have our mask on. And I think that’s still a question we need to understand,” Birx said.

Her visit is the second high-profile appearance in Wisconsin this week by officials working on the nation’s pandemic response. Dr. Robert Redfield, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, visited the UW-Madison campus Thursday.