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Former White House Covid Director On How Data-Sharing And Transparency Could Get People Back To The Office

The woman who led the U.S. coronavirus response out of the White House last year is now the chief science and medical officer for a Texas pathogen air filtration company, and she is calling on other private sector leaders to get the message out about how safe the office can be, even during a pandemic.

Dr. Deborah Birx and Amy Carenza, both of ActivePure Technologies, speak at a BOMA New York event Dec. 14, 2021.

"The workplace in general, because of the modifications that have been done and because of the opportunities that now exist to even improve on those modifications, the workplace is not only fairly safe, but can become increasingly safer," Dr. Deborah Birx told Bisnow in an interview Tuesday.

Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator under President Donald Trump, was hired in March by Dallas-based ActivePure Technologies. She spoke on stage at a BOMA New York event at 30 Hudson Yards earlier Tuesday.

Covid-19 has taken the lives of more than 800,000 Americans in the last two years, and millions more worldwide. Hospitals across the country are straining with increasing caseloads and deaths are up 40% in the last two weeks, which Birx said was largely a result of the delta variant and people gathering for the holidays.

Birx and Amy Carenza, ActivePure's chief commercial officer, outlined the different ways offices can be made safer, including by working with businesses like ActivePure to install HVAC systems that eliminate pathogens. 

"I have been out and working the entire time, traveling, in states, in airports, in hotels, in meetings, and I haven’t gotten infected," Birx said. "So it’s clear you can mitigate against infection. It’s giving people the confidence that that’s possible, and I think that’s what we need: to empower people with the information that they have the confidence about where the virus spreads and how the virus spreads and where it doesn’t spread and what can be done to prevent it."

Carenza said her company has worked more in schools than in office buildings so far, and has done real-world studies showing how the company's technology — which filters air through a system that replicates natural air and light — eliminates viral and fungal pathogens in the schools. But private businesses are much more loath to share data, which is critical to gaining the trust of the people who are expected to return to an enclosed environments, she said. 

"If we can get corporations to follow and similarly track and report data, then we will soon have a very clear understanding of what does and doesn’t work in the workplace," she said.

Birx said companies should put out a newsletter to their employees with the most recent county-level Covid-19 data from the federal government. 

"That helps inform people about what’s happening in their community, because they know whether people are at work or not," Birx said. "It is important to follow up on to say, 'and these are the mitigation that we’re putting in place because our county is currently over 10% positivity or over so many cases.'"

The top 10 office markets in the country hit 40% of pre-coronavirus occupancy earlier this month, the highest figure since the onset of the pandemic. ActivePure is working more with office owners as occupancy in buildings increases, and Carenza said more corporate executives have come to the realization that Covid-19 is going to be a presence for years.

"What is happening now is C-suites across America are saying, ‘If we stay home, we’ll be home forever,'" Carenza said. "I think there is a lot of introspection happening across C-suites, but it’s happening from a standpoint of No. 1, we’re going to have to learn to live with this, and then No. 2, if we’re going to live with this, how do we live with it safely."

While the highest levels of filtration, and a heavy dose of transparency, could move the needle in terms of employee trust to return to the workplace, Birx said, taking the human factor seriously is just as important.

"It does become really critical that the workplace is aware of these holes," she said. "They know people take off the mask in the bathroom to put on your makeup, they know that when you get into an empty elevator, you take your mask off, they know these things happen." 

When asked how to message to people who don't comply with regulations, she quoted Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves.

"He said, 'We look at this like a dimmer dial, when cases go up, we increase the mitigation by our dimmer dial. When cases go down, we mitigate less.' The people know that it’s data-driven based on what’s happening in communities."

It is critical for the private sector to continue to be leaders on health and safety, Birx said, because the federal government has dropped the ball on messaging around the pandemic.

"The private sector has to help convey to the American people what a safe environment looks like. I think that’s where the information is going to have to come from," Birx said. "Because the federal messages have been less clear and less leading. That has continued."

CORRECTION, DEC. 16, 2:20 P.M. ETThis story was updated to reflect that Birx was quoting Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves about looking at mitigation like a dimmer switch.