COLUMBIA, S.C. — A key member of the White House COVID Task Force praised the University of South Carolina's response to the pandemic Thursday.
Dr. Deborah Birx says she wants to take what USC is doing to combat COVID-19 and share it with other campuses across the United States.
Birx toured healthcare facilities on USC's campus Thursday, while meeting with city and university leadership to discuss what's working, and what's not, to stop the spread of the virus.
"We can see since we were here eight to nine weeks ago meeting with the governor real progress," Birx said in a news conference Thursday.
By early next week, Birx says a "surge testing team" is coming to the Columbia area.
DHEC defines a "surge testing team" as federal partners who choose locations across the country to dramatically expand COVID testing to up to 5,000 COVID-19 tests per day.
The goal is to be able to ensure all of the asymptomatic cases are found within a community, that way they can be successfully isolated to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The "surge testing team" will have two sites set up in the Columbia area, DHEC said, and the team will remain here for 12 to 14 days. The locations of the sites are still being determined.
If a site is placed on USC's campus, for example, Dr. Birx is hoping for testing numbers to double to 3,000 tests a day.
"That allows you to test the entire student body every 10-day period," said Birx. "Students, before you go home, before you go to anyone who has a vulnerable person in your household, please get tested. Really, we know that people under 25 are particularly asymptomatic. I wanna be clear, no one is intentionally spreading the virus. They don't know they're positive."
She says she called on universities to bring their scientists together to create new tests to help with student surveillance, and USC answered that call.
"I really want to applaud the University of South Carolina who heeded that call, developed an assay, worked with others to make sure that it was a high quality assay, submitted also to the FDA for emergency use authorization," said Birx. "It is that test, as it continues to expand and ramp up, that is going to be available for really testing South Carolinian university students."
When discussing what her team is noticing as far as the spread of COVID-19 today, Dr. Birx says they're pinpointing gatherings among family members and friends.
"Just because we know someone we think that there's no way that they could have COVID," she added. "I want to tell you you can't tell. So, over Labor Day if you had a family gathering and you had your mask off and you were close together, please go get tested."
When asked about a timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Birx says there's no specific timeline yet. She says right now, there are immunizations happening across the country between groups with varying ages, races and ethnicities.
Before the press conference came to a close, Dr. Birx recommended everyone get a flu vaccine.
She said if you look at past years' flu numbers, the South typically ends up with the first cases of the flu. She pointed out that cases of the common cold are going down this summer because of so many people taking COVID-19 health precautions. She says that's proof that common health practices to avoid spreading the coronavirus can also be helpful in preventing other respiratory illnesses, like the flu.
USC President Bob Caslen shared a statement on the visit of Dr. Birx to campus Thursday:
“I was honored to host Dr. Deborah Birx, an internationally respected and acclaimed physician, diplomat and public health leader. Her visit today reinforced our view that our COVID plans are robust, flexible and focused on the right outcomes. As I’ve said before, we remain committed to testing as much as we can in order to identify all our positive cases, take care of them, and get them back into the classroom as soon as possible. This supports our commitment to our students, faculty and staff. As we ramp up our saliva testing to previous levels, we appreciate DHEC and Nephron’s support in getting additional lab workers certified and providing additional testing capabilities.”