‘You have to stop the silent spread’: Dr. Deborah Birx urges Wisconsin to learn from UW System, test to find young, asymptomatic spreaders

MADISON, Wis. – White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx was in Madison on Friday to meet with legislators and University of Wisconsin System leaders.

When she visited at the end of August, she said Wisconsin was doing well at controlling outbreaks, but she did see early signs of a potential surge. Now she said 83% of counties are in the red or orange zone in terms of numbers of cases and the trajectory of new hospitalizations is “deeply concerning.”

“Right now by cases per population, Wisconsin is number four in the country,” said Birx.

She said the state should learn from the drop in cases happening on UW campuses.

“Universities that required weekly testing of students, staff and faculty have extraordinary low community spread. What do I mean? There’s very little infection of the students because they’re constantly finding those cases early and isolating them for 10 days and that prevents community spread,” said Birx.

She said universities that don’t test 100% of their student population every week have about 99% more spread.

The hope is that communities do their own proactive testing to find asymptomatic individuals and the UW system continues to test young people weekly, not just those on UW campuses but students at vocational schools as well.

“You have to stop the silent spread by people who don’t know they’re infected, but are highly infectious,” said Birx.

She said the silent spreaders are most likely young, ages 18-30, and are infecting others without knowing it for 10-12 days. They are not voluntarily going to get tested because they feel fine.

“As we decrease the spread in public places, it has made it clear how much more spread is happening in households,” said Birx.

We’re not seeing people get infected in grocery stores or public spaces as much because of the statewide mask ordinance, but she said small gatherings in homes are where people let their guards down and the virus spreads. She recommends wearing a mask, even in your own home, if you’re around someone who has a high-risk of severe illness from the coronavirus.

She said once it started to get cold, people began gathering inside more.

“When you think everything is fine and you have this level of asymptomatic spread, the virus then takes off like wildfire because it’s finding a lot of individuals in a place where the virus is concentrated and you don’t have your mask on,” said Birx.

She said Wisconsinites need to change their behaviors at home as well as in public in order to stop the surge in new cases.

“What we did through summer, what we’re doing now is not effectively stopping the spread,” said Birx. “We have to do things differently.”