Deborah Birx, who was tapped to coordinate the Trump administration’s coronavirus response in February 2020 but quickly lost favor with the president, on Thursday painted a picture of wide-ranging dysfunction that she said misled the public and state officials, hampered coronavirus testing and contributed to unnecessary deaths from the virus.
“I think there were individuals communicating with the White House … who believed that if you infected enough people that you would have herd immunity. There was no evidence [of that] — in fact, there was evidence to the contrary,” Birx testified.
Birx also criticized Scott Atlas, a senior fellow in health-care policy at Stanford University who joined the administration in July 2020 and won Trump’s favor by saying that many infections were inevitable and encouraging a less robust government response. Atlas’s private advice and public comments broke from the recommendations made by Birx and fellow pandemic experts such as Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert.
“It certainly destroyed any cohesion in the response,” Birx said, adding that Atlas and other officials presented data to the president that she believed painted a rosier view of the pandemic than was warranted.
“When you no longer agree on what is actually happening in the country and what needs to be done … then you lose the ability to execute in the maximum efficient and effective way,” Birx said.
Birx also recounted an Oval Office meeting with Atlas and Trump in August 2020 during which the officials discussed a summer surge in coronavirus cases.
“Dr. Atlas took that opportunity to make the point that it didn’t matter what you did, each of these surges would be identical. It didn’t matter if you tested. In fact, testing young people … and asking them to isolate while they were infectious was an infringement of their rights, and it was equivalent to a lockdown,” Birx testified. “These kinds of thoughts, particularly in any infectious disease, are dangerous.”
Birx told the panel’s investigators last year that the looming 2020 election distracted Trump officials from the pandemic, and that more than 130,000 American lives could have been saved with swifter action and better coordinated public health messages after the virus’s first wave.
“We have learned and will remember how politics was prioritized over science,” Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who chairs the panel, said Thursday.
Atlas did not respond to requests for comment. Atlas, who had no expertise in fighting pandemics, has blamed Birx for “harmful lockdowns” in early 2020 that he said caused widespread harm to children and the elderly.
“Dr. Birx cannot be allowed to rewrite history and avoid responsibility for her failures,” Atlas told The Washington Post in a statement last year.
A spokesperson for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Birx’s testimony and new allegations. “She was a very negative voice who didn’t have the right answers,” Trump said in a statement last year about Birx’s prior criticism of the response.
Republicans at the hearing pressed Birx on unresolved questions about where the virus originated, which Birx largely deflected, and complained that Democrats were failing to scrutinize the Biden administration’s pandemic strategy.
“Here we are today, having yet another hearing with a witness to discuss things that happened more than two years ago,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the panel’s top Republican, asking why Fauci had not testified before the panel for more than a year, and why former Biden White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients and current coordinator Ashish Jha had not been summoned to answer questions about the current administration’s response.
Birx separately criticized the ongoing response, saying better communication and more vaccinations were needed to save lives, particularly in rural America.
“We are still losing Americans today at … a very unacceptable rate when we have the tools to prevent it,” Birx said. Close to 300 Americans are dying each day from covid-19, according to The Post’s rolling seven-day average.
Democrats on Thursday released hundreds of pages of interviews with Birx conducted last October, during which she made additional allegations about the pandemic strategy of the Trump White House. Birx said Trump officials frequently asked her to change reports about the state of the pandemic, which she sent to governors’ offices, and she grudgingly went along.
“If the changes weren’t … made, the governors’ reports would not have gone out,” Birx told investigators, declining to identify the officials who demanded changes.
The Democrats this week also released a staff report that faulted Atlas as the author of a “dangerous and discredited herd immunity strategy,” drawing on interviews with Birx and other officials and newly released documents.
The documents included an email sent from Atlas to a Trump health official in March 2020 in which Atlas asserted that the coronavirus outbreak was likely to “cause about 10,000 deaths” and argued that the federal government had overreacted. Atlas did not respond to The Post’s questions about the email.
Birx was the first former Trump official to publicly testify in front of the House panel about the prior administration’s response, and Democrats had originally envisioned their two-year-plus coronavirus probe as an opportunity to spotlight Trump’s pandemic mistakes heading into this year’s elections.
But that strategy has been complicated by the pandemic’s persistence under President Biden and voters’ fading interest in coronavirus as a priority, and the panel’s findings have increasingly been overshadowed by other Democratic priorities. Thursday morning’s hearing was relatively muted, with lawmakers focused on an afternoon House panel investigating Trump’s pressure on the Justice Department to overturn the 2020 election.
Birx sat alone at the hearing table, accompanied by her memoir detailing her time as Trump’s coronavirus coordinator. The book had sold 5,938 copies as of June 11, an analyst for NPD BookScan told The Post last week.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Scott Atlas was an anesthesiologist. He is a radiologist and senior fellow in health-care policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The article has been corrected.