Dr. Deborah L. Birx, President Donald J. Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator, told a congressional committee investigating the federal response to the pandemic that Trump White House officials had asked her to modify or to cut portions of the weekly guidelines she sent to state and local health officials, in what she described as a constant effort to stifle information as virus cases surged in the second half of 2020.
Dr. Birx, who testified publicly before the panel on Thursday morning, also told the committee that Trump White House officials withheld reports from states during a winter outbreak and refused to release the documents, which contained data on the spread of the virus and recommendations on how to contain it.
His account of White House interference came in a multi-day interview the committee conducted in October 2021, which was released Thursday along with a series of emails Dr. Birx sent to colleagues in 2020 warning of the influence of a new White House pandemic adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, who she said downplayed the threat of the virus. The emails provide new insight into how Dr. Birx and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, dealt with what Dr. Birx called the misinformation propagated by Dr. Atlas.
Pressure to downplay the threat was so widespread, Dr. Birx told committee investigators, that she developed techniques to avoid the attention of White House officials who might have opposed her public health recommendations. . In reports she prepared for local health officials, she said, she sometimes put ideas at the end of sentences so that co-workers scanning the text wouldn’t notice them.
In her Thursday testimony, she offered similarly withering assessments of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, suggesting that in 2020 officials had mistakenly considered the coronavirus to be akin to the flu even after seeing high rates. high Covid-19 mortality rates in Asia and Europe. This, she said, had caused a “false sense of security in America” as well as a “sense among the American people that this was not going to be a serious pandemic.”
Failing to use “concise and consistent communication,” she added, “resulted in inaction early on, I think, across all of our agencies.”
And the culprits, she said, weren’t “just the president.”
“A lot of our leaders were using words like ‘We could contain,’” she continued. “And you can’t contain a virus that can’t be seen. And it wasn’t seen because we weren’t testing.
Dr. Birx became a controversial figure during her time in the Trump White House. A respected AIDS researcher, she was plucked from her position leading the government’s program to combat the international HIV epidemic to coordinate the federal response to Covid.
But her credibility was called into question when she failed to correct Mr Trump’s unscientific musings on the coronavirus and praised him on television for being “attentive to the scientific literature”. She has also been criticized for reinforcing messages from the White House in the early months of the coronavirus outbreak that the pandemic was mitigating.
Yet as the outbreaks continued that year, Mr. Trump and some senior advisers grew increasingly impatient with Dr. Birx and his public health colleagues, who insisted on mitigation efforts. Seeking a contrarian presence, the White House hired Dr. Atlas, who functioned as a rival to Dr. Birx.
“They believed the counterfactual points that were never supported by Dr. Atlas’ data,” she said during Thursday’s hearing.
In an email obtained by the committee, dated August 11, 2020, Dr. Birx informed Dr. Fauci and other colleagues of what she called a “very dangerous” Oval Office meeting with Mr. Trump. During that session, she said, Dr. Atlas called masks “overpriced and unnecessary” and opposed testing for the virus, saying it could harm Mr. Trump politically.
Dr Birx claimed Dr Atlas inspired Mr Trump to ask for narrower recommendations on who should get tested.
‘Case identification is bad for the president’s re-election – testing should only be for the sick,’ she said, telling Dr Atlas.
“He noted that it was the task force that got us into this abyss by promoting testing and falsely increasing the number of cases compared to other countries,” she added, referring to a group of senior health officials who met regularly at the White House. “The conclusion was that Dr. Atlas is brilliant and the president will take his advice now.”
In another email sent to senior health officials two days later, Dr. Birx listed seven ideas espoused by Dr. Atlas that she called misinformation, including that the virus was comparable to the flu, that football players could not become seriously ill from the virus and that “children are immune”.
“I don’t know what we should do,” she wrote, warning that if the number of cases continued to rise, there would be “300,000 deaths by December.” The United States ended the year with more than 350,000 Covid deaths.
“I know what I’m going to do,” Dr. Fauci wrote in response. “I will continue to say what we have been saying all along, which contradicts each of his 7 points below. If the press asks me if what I say differs from his, I will simply say that I respectfully disagree with him.
In her interviews with the committee last year, Dr Birx described regular attempts by others to undermine the weekly pandemic assessments she first sent to state and local authorities in June 2020, which offered “comprehensive data and state-specific recommendations regarding the state of the pandemic,” the committee wrote in a press release.
Beginning in the fall of that year, Dr. Birx said, she began receiving “a list of changes for three or four states” each week, which sometimes involved offers to relax mask recommendations or domestic capacity restrictions. In one case, he was asked to relax guidance for South Dakota officials and remove some recommendations for the state, which had a surge in cases at the time.
When she asked the White House to release the reports so Americans would know more about the outbreaks in their communities, the request was denied, she told investigators. In December 2020, she told them, the White House stopped sending the reports to states unless requested.
Dr Birx told committee investigators that he was asked to edit reports about “25%” of the time or they would not be sent.