Deborah Birx visits Penn State, consults with University leaders

October 14, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, visited the University Park campus today (Oct. 14) to discuss Penn State’s ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic with University leaders. 

Birx met with Penn State leaders, members of the institution’s COVID-19 response team and student leaders, including:

  • Hibah Akbar, president, Commonwealth Campus Student Government;
  • Kevin Black, interim dean of the College of Medicine;
  • Cara Exten, assistant professor of nursing; 
  • Matt Ferrari, associate professor of biology; 
  • Kelly Austin, associate vice president for administration, Commonwealth Campuses;
  • Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost; 
  • Lawrence Lokman, vice president for Strategic Communications;
  • Zach McKay, president, University Park Undergraduate Association;
  • Robin Oliver-Veronesi, senior director of University Health Services; 
  • Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs; 
  • Kelly Wolgast, director of the COVID-19 Operations Control Center; and 
  • Charima Young, director of local government and community relations.

Birx also praised universities like Penn State that reopened. “Universities and university presidents that believe in their students enough to believe they could change behavior are those that should be applauded. It was easier to remain closed,” she said.

Penn State leaders spoke with Birx about the University’s efforts at testing, contact tracing and student engagement, and discussed the challenges of implementing plans across the 20 unique campuses throughout the commonwealth. University leadership shared with Birx that the multi-layered approach to testing and contact tracing remain the highest priority for Penn State, and that University leaders, with the help of faculty experts, will continue to monitor the ever-changing environment and implement new strategies when needed. 

Birx said her university tour is enabling her to bring models working in different universities, and share best practices with other institutions. Birx praised the University’s Mask Up or Pack Up campaign, both for how well the message is resonating, and for the efforts the University made to include students and the community in crafting that message. 

“They created the ‘Mask Up or Pack Up,’ and the ‘Our Community, Our Responsibility’ messages in service to their community,” she said, and “understood clearly the messages about protecting the most vulnerable.” 

Birx said they want to learn from the campaign approach and how students were able to “internalize the messages we have been talking about and hold each other accountable.”

Birx noted that the University’s testing strategy seems to be stopping spread within the classroom and in the broader community, but supports expanded testing, which she said encourages positive student behavior.  Jones said the University is committed to continuing and expanding its testing, including the Testing and Surveillance Center (TASC).

She has been traveling by car to colleges and universities across 30 states throughout the fall, including AlabamaAuburnBoston UniversityClemsonConnecticutKentuckyMississippiRowanRutgersSouth CarolinaStony BrookTennesseeTexas A&MVermontVirginia Tech and Wisconsin. During her visits, Birx has been meeting with university leaders and encouraging college students to continue mitigation efforts, including masking and social distancing.

Birx earned her medical degree from the Penn State College of Medicine in 1980. Last year, she received the Distinguished Alumni Award, which is the University's highest honor presented to its alumni.

Last Updated October 14, 2020