Dr. Birx told the heartbreaking story of her great-grandmother's death from Spanish flu while imploring Americans to social distance

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Ambassador Debbie Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, addresses the coronavirus task force daily briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, March 25, 2020.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

  • Dr. Deborah Birx, a top official handling the United States' coronavirus response, on Wednesday told the tragic story of her great-grandmother dying from Spanish flu as she implored Americans to social distance.
  • "My grandmother, for 88 years, lived with the fact that she was the one at age 11 who brought home flu...when her mother had just delivered. And her mother succumbed to the great, 1918 flu," Birx said.
  • Birx said every American has a role to "protect each and every person that you interact with."
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Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, told a heartbreaking story of her great-grandmother dying from Spanish flu in 1918 as she underscored the need for social distancing.

During the 1918 pandemic, Birx's grandmother came home with the Spanish flu, and ended up passing it on to Birx's great-grandmother, who had recently given birth. Birx said her grandmother lived with the guilt of this her entire life and "never forgot that she was the child that was in school that innocently brought that flu home."

"It's very important to me personally. My grandmother, for 88 years, lived with the fact that she was the one at age 11 who brought home flu to her mother...when her mother had just delivered. And her mother succumbed to the great, 1918 flu," Birx said at the daily White House press briefing on coronavirus. 

"This is why we keep to saying to every American: 'You have a role to protect each and every person that you interact with.' We have a role protect one another, that's why we are social distancing and you are social distancing," Birx went on to say. 

 

Birx presented her grandmother's lifelong struggle with the guilt of what happened in 1918 as a cautionary tale for Americans, urging them to keep social distancing and self-isolating when necessary so they don't "inadvertently" spread coronavirus to vulnerable populations or people. 

The Spanish flu killed 50 million people worldwide, including and 675,000 in the United States,  according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). President Donald Trump's paternal grandfather, Friedrich Trump, was among the millions killed by the devastating pandemic in 1918.

As of Wednesday evening, more than 64,000 coronavirus cases have been reported across all 50 states and Washington, DC, along with at least 920 deaths. Globally, the coronavirus pandemic has killed at least 21,100 people and infected more than 466,000. 

The White House has issued a series of guidelines, including engaging in. social distancing, to quell the spread of coronavirus in the US.  The CDC defines social distancing as "remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible."

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