Deborah Birx, the former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, told a House committee on Thursday that the Trump administration failed to communicate the seriousness of COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, leading to inaction and a false sense of security throughout the government.
Testifying before the House select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Birx said a clear and concise message on the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus was needed at the start of the pandemic, noting that data coming from China and Europe had already indicated the risks of the pathogen even before it reached the U.S.
The “continued communication of underplaying the seriousness of this pandemic” ultimately resulted in “inaction early on I think across our agencies, but also created a false sense of security in America,” Birx said.
“You cannot contain a virus that cannot be seen. And it wasn’t being seen because we weren’t testing,” she said.
Birx said the White House was already behind in its efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic in several ways early on, such as believing that the virus could be tracked through symptomatic cases when the risk of asymptomatic viral spread had already been known from other pathogens.
“I think from the very beginning, CDC believed this could be tracked through symptoms only and didn’t prepare for asymptomatic community spread or develop the data and the infrastructure to track that,” Birx said.
Birx, who has worked extensively in researching HIV and establishing health systems in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, said the U.S. was less prepared and had less access to routine testing than the African countries she had been tasked with working in.
Birx said the Trump administration struggled with opposing recommendations between career health advisors and allies of the former president such as Scott Atlas, who became known for speaking publicly against the health guidance issued by federal agencies.
When asked if Atlas’s presence in the administration undermined the White House COVID-19 response, Birx said it “absolutely” did.
She said that Atlas’s time in the White House created “a sense that if Debbie, Bob, Tony and Steve are saying this and Scott Atlas and these PhDs are saying that, then no one is right and no one really knows,” referring to former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield, chief White House medical advisor Anthony Fauci and former White House advisor Steven Hatfill.
Birx’s comments echoed remarks of hers that were published in a subcommittee report earlier this week condemning Atlas’s influence on the Trump White House.
While commenting on the ways that the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic could have been better, Birx praised governors, both Democrats and Republicans, for their “extraordinary” and “focused” work during her time in working with them.
Earlier on Thursday, the subcommittee released previous interviews it had conducted with Birx in which she described how the Trump administration altered and modified science-based recommendations that were sent out to governors on how to fight the pandemic.
Birx told the panel in the prior interview that changes were made to the reports about 25 percent of the time and if those changes to the recommendations weren’t made, then they weren’t sent out. She told the panel that she was made to “tone down” recommendations on masks and other mitigation methods.