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Social Distancing Is Personal For WH Virus Honcho Dr. Deborah Birx

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks at the White House Wednesday.
Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks at the White House Wednesday.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House's coronavirus task force, warned on Wednesday about the long-lasting and personal implications about spreading a virus with a story from her own family.

Birx said she remembered the guilt borne by her grandmother, whom she said caught the flu as a child during the 1918 pandemic, known by many Americans as the "Spanish flu," and then passed the disease along to her family.

The girl's mother fell sick and died, Birx said — something that stayed with her for the rest of her life.

"She never forgot that she was the child who was in school who innocently brought that flu home shortly after her mother delivered," Birx said. "My grandmother lived with that for 88 years ... this is not a theoretical. This is a reality."

Birx is among the public health officials who have been urging Americans to stay home, avoid groups of more than 10 and take other precautionary measures such as washing their hands.

Birx and Vice President Mike Pence both said in a news conference at the White House on Wednesday that when they're asked by people how they can pitch in, the answers they give are to follow these mitigation guidelines.

"We all have a role," Birx said. "Each person in every place no matter which county, which community, which state, can work with us to make sure we prevent the spread of this virus to others."

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.