White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx came to Michigan Wednesday to meet with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and local health officials.

Though Whitmer has called for a federal mask mandate to slow the transmission of the virus, Birx told reporters outside St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia that it’s up to governors to decide.

“The federal government has … recommended a mask mandate at the state level, where we believe it can be enforced,” she said.

“We’re asking for behavioral change and whenever you ask people to change their behavior, it needs constant reinforcement. But I can tell you every place that has instituted a statewide mask mandate, or a countywide mask mandate, we see the impact on the cases.

“So, it is not theoretical. Masks work, and they protect and prevent spread of the virus.”

As students return to schools and college campuses, Birx said transparency in reporting new COVID-19 cases is vital to prevent outbreaks, but she stopped short of recommending school districts notify parents of cases among students and staff.

“Every school district knows what their counties are, and what their COVID case numbers are,” she said. “They need to be transparent about that to every single parent. Every single parent and every single person who lives in a county should be going on that website … and see whether there’s cases in their county and if they’re increasing because schools will strictly be a reflection of what’s happening in the community, and what’s happening in that county.

“… When we see community spread, it could get into the schools.”

Birx’s comments came a couple hours before Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy director for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, announced the department will track and release the names of specific schools in Michigan where there are outbreaks.

The state will start posting the information online in the next two weeks, Khaldun said.

Birx said her focus now is coordinating with state and community health leaders to ensure that they’re prepared if there’s a rise in COVID-19 cases this fall.

The federal government she said “is surging” more COVID-19 tests to governors so they can distribute testing to schools, nursing homes, correctional facilities and other high-risk populations to test more often in hopes of stopping an outbreak before it gets too big.

And she said the federal government now recommends coronavirus testing weekly or every-other-week for nurses, prison employees, teachers, nursing home workers, and people in other front-line jobs.

“We’ll be sending tests directly to governors because we believe that governors know precisely what their testing mix is and how best to utilize those tests to serve the people of their state,” Birx said.

Testing has been a hot-button issue, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines earlier this month to suggest asymptomatic people “do not necessarily need a test” even if they’ve been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19.

The change ignited an uproar among many medical experts who said asympomtatic and pre-symptomatic people are drivers of community spread and must be identified swiftly to prevent outbreaks.

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Birx said she has advised the CDC to “re-order their guidelines” about coronavirus testing to make it clear higher up that testing for asymptomatic people who have known exposure to the virus is relevant for surveillance.

“It talks just about that, how important asymptomatic surveillance testing is,” Birx said. “We know that particularly in young people, most of them either don’t report symptoms or the case is so mild that they don’t realize they have COVID. They need to know, because they need to know to not pass the virus on to others.”

So far in the pandemic, the MDHHS has reported 103,710 confirmed cases and 6,509 confirmed deaths to COVID-19, and the U.S. leads the world with more than 6 million cases and 185,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard.

Statewide, reports of new cases have leveled off in recent weeks, with a seven-day average of 647 new daily cases. The percentage of positive coronavirus tests also has plateaued at about 3% in the state.

“It is our behavior that starts cases and can stop cases,” Birx said. “And so, neither I, nor anybody in the administration is willing to sacrifice American lives for herd immunity. We’ll get to herd immunity through a vaccine. And that’s the right way to do it.”

Three potential vaccines — produced by Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer in partnership with BioNTech — are in final Phase 3 clinical trials right now.

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Birx said she couldn’t predict how soon any of them might come to market because they have to undergo independent safety reviews. But, she said, she’ll roll up her sleeves for a vaccination when they do.

“Absolutely,” she said. “This one is relatively straight forward because we know what the critical immune responses are. And so that’s why we’re encouraged that the possibility of a vaccine is very strong.”

Birx also issued this message to Michiganders:

“We are going into Labor Day,” she said. “Please, wear your mask. When I say socially distance, it means at all times, including with family members that you may not have seen for a few weeks, including with the neighbors down the street. It is really important because we are seeing that crowded neighborhood events, including backyard barbecues, are currently one of the primary spreaders of virus.

“We all believe that the neighbor could not cut possibly have COVID because they look fine. And we believe that our family member that just came back could not have been exposed and could not have COVID because they look fine. And what we’ve now learned is you cannot tell if a person has COVID and frankly that person themselves may be so asymptomatic or so mild or the case that they don’t know they have it.

“So let’s over this Labor Day weekend really protect one another, be safe like you have been through this summer, keeping those case counts down so we can continue to serve all of Michigan, with the health care that Michigan deserves.”

Contact Kristen Shamus: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus. Free Press staff writer Dave Boucher contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Dr. Deborah Birx says it’s up to governors to issue coronavirus mask mandates


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