WASHINGTON – Dr. Deborah L. Birx, President Donald J. Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator, told a congressional committee investigating the federal pandemic response that Trump White House officials asked her to review portions of the weekly guidelines she sent to state and local health officials. change or delete it, in what she described as a consistent effort to suppress information as virus cases surged in the second half of 2020.
dr. Birx, who testified publicly before the panel Thursday morning, also told the committee that Trump White House officials withheld states’ reports during a winter outbreak and refused to release the documents, which include data on the spread of the virus and recommendations for how to contain it.
Her account of White House interference came in a multi-day interview the commission held in October 2021, which was released Thursday 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 chief infectious disease expert, struggled with what Dr. Birx called the misinformation spread by Dr. Atlas.
The pressure to downplay the threat was so pervasive, Dr. Birx told the committee’s investigators that she was developing techniques to avoid the attention of White House officials, who may have objected to 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 colleagues skimming the text wouldn’t notice them.
In her testimony on Thursday, she offered similar scathing assessments of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, suggesting that in 2020 officials had mistakenly viewed the coronavirus as akin to flu, even after seeing high Covid-19 death rates in Asia. and Europe. That perspective, she said, had created a “false sense of security in America” as well as a “feeling among the American people that this was not going to be a serious pandemic.”
Not using “concise, consistent communication,” she added, “I think led to initial inactivity across all our agencies.”
And those guilty, she said, weren’t “just the president.”
“Many of our leaders used words like, ‘We can contain it,’” she continued. “And you can’t contain a virus that you can’t see. 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 picked from her position to lead the government’s program to fight the international HIV epidemic to coordinate the federal Covid response. But her credibility came into question when she failed to correct Mr Trump’s unscientific musings about the coronavirus, praising him on television as having “attention to the scientific literature.” She also faced criticism for bolstering White House messages in the early months of the coronavirus outbreak that the pandemic was waning.
But as the outbreaks continued that year, Mr. Trump and some senior advisers became increasingly impatient with Dr. Birx and her public health colleagues, who pushed for aggressive mitigation efforts. Seeking a contrarian presence, the White House hired Dr. Atlas in, who acted as a rival to Dr. Birx.
“They believed the counterfactuals that were never supported by data from Dr. Atlas,” she said during Thursday’s hearing.
In an email obtained by the committee, dated August 11, 2020, Dr. Birx Dr. Fauci and other colleagues on what she called a “very dangerous” Oval Office meeting with Mr. Trump. During that session, she said, Dr. Atlas called masks “overrated and unnecessary” and had argued against virus testing, saying it could harm Mr Trump politically.
dr. Birx claimed that Dr. Atlas had inspired Mr Trump to call for closer recommendations on who should get tested.
“Business identification is bad for presidential re-election — testing should only be of the sick,” she told Dr. Atlas.
“He noted that it was the task force that got us into this ditch 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 in the White House. “The conclusion was that Dr. Atlas is brilliant and the president will now follow his lead.”
In another email sent to senior health officials two days later, Dr. Birx listed seven ideas embraced by Dr. Atlas that she called misinformation, including that the virus was similar to the flu, that football players are not seriously ill. could be from the virus and that ‘children are immune’.
“I don’t know what to do,” she wrote, warning that if caseloads continued to increase, there would be “300K deaths” by December. The United States ended the year with more than 350,000 Covid deaths.
“I know what I’m going to do,” wrote Dr. Fauci as an answer. “I keep saying what we’ve been saying all along, which contradicts each of his seven points below. If the press asks me if what I’m saying is different from his, I’ll just say I respectfully disagree.”
In her interviews with the committee last year, Dr. Birx described frequent attempts by others to undermine the weekly pandemic assessments she first sent to state and local officials in June 2020, which provided “comprehensive data and state-specific recommendations regarding the status of of the pandemic,” the committee wrote.
As of the fall of that year, Dr. Birx, she began receiving “a list of changes for three or four states” every week, sometimes accompanied by bids to relax mask recommendations or indoor capacity restrictions. In one case, she was asked to soften guidelines for South Dakota officials and remove some recommendations for the state, which had a wave of business.
When she asked the White House to publish the reports so that Americans would know more about outbreaks in their communities, the request was denied, she told the researchers. In December 2020, she told them, the White House stopped sending the reports to states unless requested.
dr. Birx told the committee’s investigators she was asked to change the reports about “25 percent” of the time or they wouldn’t be sent.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg reporting contributed.