Small increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in northeastern cities and states like Connecticut have White House health officials concerned about “troubling signs” of the pandemic’s spread this fall and winter.
“We do see slight upticks in test positivity, slight upticks in cases, and that often is just the earliest indicator that there’s ongoing asymptomatic spread in the communities,” said Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, in an appearance in Hartford Thursday.
Connecticut’s COVID-19 weekly positivity rate hovers around 1.6%, which is still low, but the number of people hospitalized as of Thursday stands at 128, according to state data. Alerts have been issued to individual communities, like New London, for spikes in new cases.
Birx spoke with Gov. Ned Lamont, state health officials and UConn faculty and students at the university’s Hartford campus. It was a closed-door meeting, but Birx later told reporters that the group discussed ways in which the state and colleges can improve on containment efforts.
“The kind of spread that we’re seeing now is very different from the spread we experienced in March and April,” Birx said, explaining that communities across the country are now tracing COVID-19 cases back to private households and social gatherings more so than workplaces, institutions and businesses.
At a daily media briefing Thursday afternoon, Lamont said that data makes him more confident in moving forward with Connecticut’s third phase of reopening this week. Phase 3 increases capacity levels at various indoor and outdoor venues.
“That’s why when we look at restaurants, and personal services and libraries, we’re finding looking around the rest of the country, we feel comfortable opening them up to 75%, because that is not where we’re seeing the infections taking place,” Lamont said.
As the weather gets colder and people move inside, Birx said, residents should increase their use of masks and distancing while indoors if they have visitors.
Birx said communities should also ramp up testing of asymptomatic people in order to catch cases that occur due to gaps in these preventive measures.
“Making sure that every community member knows that if they’re with individuals outside of their household, it could be a COVID spreading event,” she said, “and if they participated in one of those, they need to get tested within five to seven days.”
Birx has been on a tour of U.S. colleges -- she was at Rowan University in New Jersey and Stony Brook University in New York earlier this week.
She commended UConn’s ability to offer in-person classroom instruction while keeping COVID-19 cases low among faculty and students, noting that the university has one of the highest percentages of in-person attendance that she’s seen.
She also highlighted the university’s testing of wastewater as a way to identify early signs of transmission in dorms and student housing.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, whom Birx has closely worked with over the last several months as response coordinator.
Birx said her team has provided public health and scientific guidance to the general public, President Donald Trump, Pence and other national leadership -- guidance that stresses the importance of social distancing, hygiene and mask wearing in both public and private settings.
When asked about the recent COVID-19 outbreak among White House staff and U.S. legislators, which has infected the president, first lady and a growing number of others, Birx said she has largely been on the road since June and absent from the White House during the outbreak.
She clarified that Trump has a team of people responsible for overseeing his illness, but she’s not a part of that group.
Birx did emphasize that mask wearing is a crucial component in curbing the spread of the virus from person to person.
Trump was photographed numerous times at several indoor and outdoor events around the country in the two weeks leading up to his COVID-19 diagnosis. Most often, he wasn’t wearing a mask.