White House COVID-19 czar calls for deeper Kansas commitment to prevention

Deborah Birx. the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said Saturday after a meeting at University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas, that state and local public health officials must push harder on wearing of masks, social distancing and limit mass gatherings to stem a wave of infection moving into the Midwest. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx issued a stern warning Saturday that a window of opportunity was narrowing for Kansas and other Midwest states to adopt common-sense policies to deflect the coming wave of COVID-19.

Birx, who met with health professionals at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said the virus was moving north from southern states without deference to urban or rural communities, partisan affiliation or age. She said local and state government officials need to inspire wider use of masks inside and outside buildings, to build support for the 6-foot social distancing concept and to take other steps known to have economic consequences.

“Kansas has rising test positivity,” she said. “This is the moment to get it under control. Wear a mask. Close bars. Decrease indoor dining. Increase outdoor dining. Every single person needs to commit to not having parties and family gatherings that are going to spread this virus.”

That type of advice when offered by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in Kansas has been met with opposition among Republican politicians frustrated by her decision earlier this year to shut down schools and businesses statewide in response to COVID-19. More recently, Kelly’s health recommendations have been cast aside by dozens of county officials with authority over restrictions within each of state’s 105 counties.

In June, Kelly recommended a statewide mask mandate applicable to every Kansas resident when out in public and in situations when people were unable to maintain proper social distancing. Ninety of the state’s county commissions rejected her proposal on masks.

“When the pandemic first hit, there was mixed messaging about masks,” the governor said. “Now, the evidence could not be more clear. Wearing a mask is not only safe, but it is necessary to avoid another shutdown.”

Birx accepted the leadership role in the President Donald Trump administration’s response to the pandemic in February. She has a long career in infection disease research and served as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator for Presidents Barack Obama and Trump.

She warned people not to minimize health risks of a virus without a vaccine that has infected 5.3 million people in the United States and been linked to more than 168,000 fatalities across the nation.

She said the deeper spread of COVID-19 into southern states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and elsewhere attacked people in sparsely populated areas as well as residents of the biggest cities. That type of community spread is now evident in Oklahoma and Arkansas, she said.

“The virus is out there,” she said. “There’s a clear path forward to have a different outcome for Kansas.”

Southern states that responded with a mask mandate made progress against the virus, she said. Her Midwest appeal is directed at Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska because that’s where she believes spread could intensify.

Kansas is hovering at a 9.9% rate of positive tests and an uptick will place the state into a perilous zone of infection, Birx said.

“Don’t be cavalier about getting the virus,” she said. “Yes, we know people with comorbidities and the older individuals have a more difficult outcome, but everybody should work on not getting infected by the virus.”

At KU Medical Center, Birx also took part in a closed roundtable discussion with Kansans regarding COVID-19. The group included Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and KU Chancellor Doug Girod.

Birx said she was able to meet with former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who was secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services when Birx was at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While traveling in the Midwest, reports began circulating that Birx would be replaced as coordinator of the administration’s coronavirus task force. On Friday night, the White House pushed back against a CNN report she had been ousted after receiving criticism from the president.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.