Deborah Birx’s reputation will never recover

Which is only fair, since her enabling of Trump is a catastrophe from which the nation will never recover. The NY Times has a piece on how Trump failed the pandemic test, and Birx plays a prominent role in it.

For scientific affirmation, they turned to Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the sole public health professional in the Meadows group. A highly regarded infectious diseases expert, she was a constant source of upbeat news for the president and his aides, walking the halls with charts emphasizing that outbreaks were gradually easing. The country, she insisted, was likely to resemble Italy, where virus cases declined steadily from frightening heights.

On April 11, she told the coronavirus task force in the Situation Room that the nation was in good shape. Boston and Chicago are two weeks away from the peak, she cautioned, but the numbers in Detroit and other hard-hit cities are heading down.

A sharp pivot soon followed, with consequences that continue to plague the country today as the virus surges anew.

In April. I remember April. Did anyone think we were on the right path in April? We’d shut down my university, but already I was seeing people refuse to accept it, clamoring to get back to bars and beaches.

Dr. Birx was more central than publicly known to the judgment inside the West Wing that the virus was on a downward path. Colleagues described her as dedicated to public health and working herself to exhaustion to get the data right, but her model-based assessment nonetheless failed to account for a vital variable: how Mr. Trump’s rush to urge a return to normal would help undercut the social distancing and other measures that were holding down the numbers.

Yeah, models built on assumptions, like that Americans wouldn’t be stupid, and that Trump wouldn’t encourage that stupidity. Just the fact that Donald Trump is president should tell you how wrong that is.

Inside the White House, Dr. Birx was the chief evangelist for the idea that the threat from the virus was fading.

Unlike Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx is a strong believer in models that forecast the course of an outbreak. Dr. Fauci has cautioned that “models are only models” and that real-world outcomes depend on how people respond to calls for changes in behavior — to stay home, for example, or wear masks in public — sacrifices that required a sense of shared national responsibility.

Again, a responsible nation would not have elected Donald Trump.

Dr. Birx’s belief that the United States would mirror Italy turned out to be disastrously wrong. The Italians had been almost entirely compliant with stay-at-home orders and social distancing, squelching new infections to negligible levels before the country slowly reopened. Americans, by contrast, began backing away by late April from what social distancing efforts they had been making, egged on by Mr. Trump.

The difference was critical. As communities across the United States raced to reopen, the daily number of daily cases barely dropped below 20,000 in early May. The virus was still circulating across the country.

Italy’s recovery curve, it turned out, looked nothing like the American one.

Nope. Because Italians were smarter than Americans…or rather, I should say, Italians didn’t have failed leaders who were modeling the worst possible behavior for containing the infection, and didn’t have scientists feeding their delusions.

Other nations had moved aggressively to employ an array of techniques that Mr. Trump never mobilized on a federal level, including national testing strategies and contact tracing to track down and isolate people who had interacted with newly diagnosed patients.

“These things were done in Germany, in Italy, in Greece, Vietnam, in Singapore, in New Zealand and in China,” said Andy Slavitt, a former federal health care official who had been advising the White House.

“They were not secret,” he said. “Not mysterious. And these were not all wealthy countries. They just took accountability for getting it done. But we did not do that here. There was zero chance here that we would ever have been in a situation where we would be dealing with ‘embers.’ ”

We could still take those actions that other nations did — in fact, we really ought to, despite the fact that it’s late and those measures will cost more and we’re still going to suffer the tragic consequences of our failures — but we won’t. Classes start in a month, and my university still plans on opening, and I’m going to have to teach in-person labs, and students will still be moving into the dorms, and will still be gathering in the cafeterias for meals as a group, and will probably still be heading out to the bar for quarter taps on Thursday nights. It’s madness. If the University of Minnesota had asked me, I would have told them to slam on the brakes right now, refuse to enable the massing of students in one place, and teach online classes only for a year. The summer of 2021 would be the time to discuss cautiously reopening fully, but only if the pandemic was under control.

Nobody asked me. I was only told to prepare a plan for a limited reopening, not asked whether we should open at all.

At least I’m not a Birx making happy-clappy PowerPoints to show how everything is going to be just fine. When I’m feeling optimistic, I put the chances of me being dead within a year at about 10%.


  1. chrislawson says

    Spinning small bits of positive information into grotesquely overoptimistic models that undermine essential actions? Pinkerism at its finest.

  2. weylguy says

    Yeah, models built on assumptions…

    Let us not forget that the financial meltdown of 2008 resulted from the assumption of brilliant Wall Street mathematicians and physicists that home prices would forever increase.

  3. chrislawson says


    It wasn’t just bad modelling. There was a hell of a lot of outright fraud and predatory lending behind the 2008 meltdown.

  4. raven says

    When I’m feeling optimistic, I put the chances of me being dead within a year at about 10%.

    I’m not sure you have to worry quite that much.

    Most likely your university will reopen, the students will come back, there will be clusters of Covid-19 cases in both the university and Morris itself, and people will just start dying.
    Then they will go to all online again.

    We are already seeing this in universities around the country and school hasn’t even started yet.
    In my area on the west coast, cases are rising again, the patients are much younger this time, with an average age in their 20’s.
    A lot of them are school children age and college student age.

  5. blf says

    These people would appear to have a saner grip on reality than hair furor and his dalekocrazy, Space oddity: Mexican group claims alien base offers hurricane protection:

    Gulf coast cities have little to fear from extreme weather thanks, apparently, to extraterrestrials lurking underwater


    Members of the Association of Scientific UFO Research of Tamaulipas, or Aicot, believe that an inter-dimensional underwater base of extraterrestrial origin has protected the coastal cities of Ciudad Madero and Tampico from hurricanes for more than 50 years.

    Aicot’s president, Juan Carlos Ramón López Díaz, claims to have visited the base &mdashl known as Amupac — via astral projection, which he says he induced through meditation and a pescatarian diet.

    As an aside, a pescatarism is vegetarianism plus seafood. (I had to look that up, so thought I’ve save having to get annoyed at others for asking without bothering to look it up.)

    It’s also recommendable to ascend ancestral constructions, like temples and pyramids, that have stairs at a 45-degree angle, he says. (Hills sloping at such a gradient will also do, if one doesn’t live near pre-Columbian ruins.)

    Ciudad Madero suffered four direct landfalls in the 20th century, including Hurricane Inez in 1966 which killed 74 people in Mexico alone.

    López and his allies believe that the base was established some time after that.

    Explanations of exactly how and why the alien visitors are protecting Ciudad Madero vary, even among fellow investigators. López believes it’s not Amupac itself, but the esoteric power of Aicot members’ belief in the base. The collective mind is charged with this concept, so it generates a large force field of repulsion, he said.

    There is also talk of magnetic fields and a series of meter-long bars of an aluminum, iron and copper alloy secretly buried in the seafloor near Miramar Beach at the suggestion of the visitors over four decades ago.

    Magnetism, how does it work…

    The municipal government placed a bust of a green Martian at Miramar Beach in 2013 and officially dubbed the last Tuesday in October the Day of the Martian. The bust was promptly stolen.

    That’s what’s needed: A statue of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and a Day of Teh Moran.

    Back where rationality is a known concept, Short and to the point: five Fauci quotes to get you through the week:
    ● “We haven’t even begun to see the end of it yet”.
    ● “I think you can trust me”.
    ● “Stop this nonsense”.
    ● “You’re propagating the pandemic”.
    ● “We need to get better control”.

    What? No collective mind astrally projecting quantum maagnetic vibrations on an ancient staircase?


  6. raven says

    Don’t worry, the Trump mal-adminstration has a new plan to end the Covid-19 virus pandemic.
    They are simply going to magically disappear it by lying about it.

    Testing is now seriously broken across the USA again.
    In my local area which isn’t very high comparatively, they are having a hard time dealing with the rising cases because testing is delayed by many days. Which makes the tests all but useless.
    One of their problems is that they keep running out of reagents to actually run the tests.

    The Trump solution is to zero out any new money for testing, contact tracing, and the CDC.
    This is the equivalent of destroying all the lifeboats after the SS USA has hit an iceberg and is sinking.

    Trump administration opposes new funds for testing, tracing … › us-policy › 2020/07/18

    15 hours ago – Trump administration pushing to block new money for testing, tracing and CDC in upcoming coronavirus relief bill … testing and contact tracing, but that certain administration officials want to zero out the testing and tracing money entirely. … Trump says he wasn’t joking about slowing covid-19 testing.

  7. raven says

    We’ve all seen that…”White House reportedly orders hospitals to bypass CDC, send Covid-19 data to HHS.”
    It’s clearly a move to hide the Covid-19 data, which is terrible and getting worse every day.

    Trump and the GOP now want to put the National Guard in hospitals to manage the pandemic data flow.
    I suppose after the National Guard shoot a few hospital workers, the Covid-19 pandemic will magically, finally just disappear.

    Trump administration to urge states to use National Guard for … › data-analytics › tru…

    5 days ago – The Trump administration plans to ask governors to deploy the National Guard to help … them to deploy the National Guard to help hospitals improve their COVID-19 data collection, supplies ..

    This looks a lot like the tactic of shooting the messenger.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Birx (chosen by, don’t forget, Mike Pence for the coronavirus task force) already had a reputation as a culture war “just say no” faction leader.

    At first, I worried that she’d import that message into c-virus work, and felt some encouragement when she refrained. But her claim back in April that —

    [Trump]’s been so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data. I think his ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues.”

    — made it clear that she had not somehow turned into a trustworthy physician after all.

  9. KG says

    including national testing strategies and contact tracing to track down and isolate people who had interacted with newly diagnosed patients.

    “These things were done in Germany, in Italy…

    Actually I was surprised to learn today, from an Italian friend of Ms. KG, that Italy doesn’t have a contact tracing scheme as such. There’s a smartphone app, which you can download if you want, and which will tell you if you have been close to someone who also has the app and has told it they tested positive. Whether you then take any notice is up to you. I’ve heard from another Italian contact that mask-wearing is patchy (as it is here in the UK). So I wouldn’t be surprised to see cases take off again in Italy.

  10. garnetstar says

    Birx lost me the moment Trump turned to her and asked about using bleach and household cleaners internally, and all she said was “Not as treatments”, but did not add “NO ONE should ever ingest those, they are POISONS.” She’s a doctor, she is the one who has the responsibility to make sure that no one would be harmed by such nonsense, and to warn the public, but she didn’t.
    And the companies who make the cleaners had to rush to warn the public, and some people did ingest them and were injured.
    So, since she threw medical ethics, duty to warn, and do no harm, right out of the window then, I’ve not expected anything else.

  11. blf says

    @12, Yes, parliament is quite large in total (1425 = 775 Lords + 650 MPs) and can certainly be described as raving.

  12. Kevin Karplus says

    I agree with all your points except the probability of dying. The total COVID-19 deaths in New Jersey, which has the highest death rate per capita of any state, have reached about 1800 per million and seem to no longer be growing much. It is unlikely, at this point, that Morris will get a much higher death rate than that, so 0.2% seems more reasonable than 10%. If you adjust for age, perhaps 1% would be a reasonable estimate, even for a pessimist like me.

    That is still an enormously high risk that the college should not be asking of you. I’m glad that UCSC is going almost entirely online (about 1.5% of courses and <0.5% of seats in courses are in-person, and those all tiny courses that can be socially distanced).

  13. tacitus says

    10% is not even remotely optimistic, PZ. The studies of mortality rate vs age are all over the map, so I won’t bother trying to claim any degree of accuracy beyond finger in the air, but even if assume you are 100% going to catch the virus, the odds of dying are almost certainly closer to 1% than 10% once you factor in improvements in treatment protocols and the asymptomatic and mild cases that go unreported.

    And the odds only improve further given you’re going to do everything you can to avoid catching the virus — face mask, goggles, social distancing, hand washing, avoiding face touching, avoiding crowded areas etc. — and the mitigation efforts of the university will help too. So the risk isn’t even close to 100% you’ll catch it. Overall, even if you factor in your preexisting heart condition, 10% is way too pessimistic.

    Now, would I take a 1% risk or even a 0.5% risk, if there was another option? No, I wouldn’t. I’m a few years younger than you, but I was diagnosed with “possible mild COPD” after a lengthy bout of bronchitis earlier this year, and I live in Covid Central — Austin, TX — only a mile away from a nursing home that reported 52 infections last week, including 40 residents, so I’m staying home as much as I can.

    I don’t envy your position, that’s for sure, but it is important not to be over pessimistic about your chances of staying healthy. Risk mitigation grounded in common sense and realism would seem to be the way to go.

    I wish you and your colleagues all the best for the next academic year.

  14. wzrd1 says

    @raven, that suggests some idiots still have yet to figure out USAR vs USANG primary duties.
    You call out Guard for emergencies where you need security or a combat force, you call out reserves for hospital and support workers, many of whom will be coming from the very hospitals one is seeking to augment.
    National Guard was reoriented back around the millennium change to combat and combat service support. The reserves became combat service support and general support, such as with logistics.
    It still ends up poaching people from the very health care systems to augment said systems.

    PZ anticipates a 10% probability of surviving the year, I put my own likelihood at around 40% likely to survive the year, considering how things are going.

  15. blf says

    @17, PZ anticipates a 10% probability of surviving the year.
    No, that is exactly backwards: “I put the chances of me being dead within a year at about 10%.”

  16. says

    Birx is Cheetolini’s Lysenko. She has been nothing but an enabler. If there ever are trials, she’ll be one of the defendants.

    If the US is likely to emulate a hard hit European country, it’s Spain, not Italy. The Wire (India) alleges that leaked Spanish government email show that they gave the order to leave elderly sick people in care homes instead of moving them to hospitals, allowing the disease to spread. The vast majority of Spain’s were the elderly, abandoned in those places.

  17. fishy says

    I went to Wal-mart on Friday. There seemed to be a bit more mask wearing than I recalled seeing before. Still it seemed a bit too close to 50% for my liking.
    I’m thinking of going back Monday just to have a look at the results of their new policy.
    It is a shame we have to depend on private enterprise to do the right thing when our government is too dysfunctional to do something so incredibly simple as demanding people wear masks.
    No shirt. No shoes. No mask. No service.
    I’m okay with this.

  18. mnb0 says

    @16 blf: “Aren’t both @14 and @15 assuming the medical infrastructure can cope?”
    Yes, plus another one that’s even less justified: that patients will recover from COVID-19 just fine. The first medical reports and testimonies in Europe strongly suggest the opposite; when the direct danger of dying is over patients still suffer from nasty consequences, possibly for years. Chronical dyspnoea is one of them. In several cases the quality of life lowers so much that I wonder if I’d prefer dying – except that a corona-death apparently isn’t exactly smooth either.
    I say better safe than sorry, ie better too pessimistic than not pessimistic enough.

  19. tacitus says

    Aren’t both @14 and @15 assuming the medical infrastructure can cope?

    Yes, and I think that’s a reasonable assumption in a place like Morris, MN. It’s taken almost three months of determinedly wrongheaded policies and total incompetence on the part of the Texas and Florida governments to reach the point where the system is at risk of being overloaded, and only in the most densely populated areas along with a few more socially deprived areas.

    that patients will recover from COVID-19 just fine.

    I am well aware of the health risks long term. PZ was talking about being dead. That’s what I was addressing. It’s even harder to assess the risks of serious chronic illness as a result of Covid infection, since the data is still coming in, and we won’t know for sure for months yet, but they look to be significant.

    There is a difference between assessing risk and taking all necessary precautions. As I said, judging the risk to be closer to 1% than 10% doesn’t mean you should take more chances with your health. I played golf several times in May when the infection rates were still very low in Austin, but I stopped several weeks ago when the rate spiked, even though golf is about as safe an organized activity can be during the pandemic. Even the small risk just wasn’t worth it for a game of golf. On the other hand, I still go grocery shopping once a week, masked up and keeping my distance from everyone.

    If PZ had a choice, obviously he should stay home. Since it looks like he won’t. he will no doubt take all possible precautions not to catch the virus, and given that assessment of his likely actions, his chances of coming through the next school year completely unscathed are very high — almost certainly significantly over 90%.

  20. dudev says

    I remember when Birx was asked on MSNBC about Trump’s participation in the daily COVID briefings, she insisted that he had a strong grasp of the data, absorbed it like a master, and asked intelligent questions. After the interview was over, the MSNBC host sarcastically said something along the lines of “North Korea couldn’t have said it better.” Birx has her lips firmly pressed against Trump’s behind. A few weeks back, Trump couldn’t even figure out what the 19 in COVID-19 meant. And he’s had 6 months of being surrounded by experts. Birx will go down in history as one of Trump’s stooges. I hope she gets ostracized and shunned by her peers.

  21. brucej says

    “It wasn’t just bad modelling. There was a hell of a lot of outright fraud and predatory lending behind the 2008 meltdown.”

    And a lot of bad modelling. One of the scenes in the Michael Lewis’ book about the crash “The Big Short” (I don’t know about the movie, I haven’t seen it) came when the head of the fund at the center of the book got into a conversation with one of the “Excel Guy” financial analysts for one of the big banks involved, by the pool at a convention in Vegas. He asked the analyst what his models do if the price of housing goes down. “Oh they can’t do that,” he said, “they break if you enter that”

    Per the book, that was the pivotal moment when he went back to the office and started strategizing how to short the world.

  22. KG says

    The Wire (India) alleges that leaked Spanish government email show that they gave the order to leave elderly sick people in care homes instead of moving them to hospitals, allowing the disease to spread. – Intransitive@19

    You didn’t read your own linked article properly: it wasn’t the Spanish government, but the regional Madrid government from which the email leaked, and which is responsible for the policy of leaving the elderly sick in care homes – most of the article is about the Madrid region, with one mention of Barcelona. The national Spanish government is a leftish coalition, the Madrid regional government is a right-wing coalition including the far right, Barcelona is in Catalonia, the regional government of which is run by a coalition of Catalan separatist parties. It’s true the article also blames the privatization of care homes in Spain – I don’t know when this happened, or if it applies throughout the country. More generally, as the article says, elderly people in care homes have borne the brunt of the pandemic in Europe. Swedish care homes have also been privatized, so have those in the UK (where again there have been high death rates), I don’t know about other countries, but I suspect it has been general.

  23. says

    So while doing nothing similar to Italy, the result will magically be the same. Which is, of course, the big lie of Trump regime all the time : claim that the pandemic has some “natural course” with an inevitable outcome regardless of human actions so really nobody can blame you for fucking up.
    And his base believes that.