Dr. Deborah Birx has become a very public figure because of her presence at the daily press conferences of the coronavirus task force that Donald Trump has turned into a substitute for his campaign rallies.
Prior to being assigned to the coronavirus task force on Feb. 26 (the same day Vice President Pence was assigned to the body), Birx was the U.S. global AIDS coordinator. That’s an ambassador-level job inside the State Department in which she oversaw the U.S. government efforts to combat the spread of HIV globally. She was appointed to the post by President Barack Obama in 2014.
She’s one of the few Obama-era holdovers at the Trump White House. Her job as AIDS coordinator included running the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the highly praised program launched by President George W. Bush that has gotten millions of people with HIV around the world onto life-saving anti-AIDS therapy.
Before that, she spent nearly a decade running the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s global HIV/AIDS division.
But while she has been respected, her recent statements underplaying some of the risks of the epidemic have drawn some sharp criticism from public health experts.
On Thursday night, she admonished the media about dire warnings of hospitals running out of beds. And she warned against discussions that New Yorkers need to be drawing up do “not resuscitate orders” because the region’s hospitals have run out of beds and equipment.
“There is no situation in the United States right now that warrants that kind of discussion,” she said.
Birx continued in that vein, attempting to assure Americans that large proportions of the public won’t get infected quickly. Coming on the night that the U.S. surpassed China with the most confirmed cases globally, Birx’s comments drew sharp criticism on social media. The pushback came from some of the country’s top academic epidemiologists.
Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has worked on modeling this virus, tweeted a lengthy rebuttal to her comment that there currently isn’t data showing that 20% of population could get infected.
“The scenario Dr. Birx is ‘assuring’ us about is one in which we somehow escape Italy’s problem of overloaded healthcare system despite the fact that social distancing is not really happening in large parts of the US… That is unlikely,” he wrote.
Lipsitch called Birx’s characterization of the current coronavirus situation in the U.S. “rosy” and even “deceptive.”
“I desperately hope she is right, because much suffering will be avoided,” Lipsitch noted. “But reassurance that this is likely, or even plausible, with the disorganized track record of the US response, is false reassurance.”
In this interview, Birx is lavishly praises Trump.
"[Trump is] so attentive to the scientific literature & the details & the data. I think his ability to analyze & integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit” — this is shocking, hackish stuff from Dr. Birx. pic.twitter.com/c2phsRYaJs
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 27, 2020
No one but a diehard Trump fan believes for a second that Trump understands or even cares about any data or data analysis, except those concerning the stock market. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous and Birx is seriously undermining the respect that she has earned in the medical and public health communities by claiming otherwise.
Similarly Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the NIH’s division of infectious diseases and also widely respected, has been excusing Trump’s absurd Pollyannaish talk by saying that Trump likes to give people hope.
There is no evidence that Trump could tell a lie so false and dangerous that Dr. Fauci wouldn't immediately leap to defend it as a reasonable way of giving Americans hope.https://t.co/Xz5m5QKDgq
— Susan Simpson (@TheViewFromLL2) March 27, 2020
But putting an undeserved positive spin on Trump’s misleading musings is undermining his reputation as a truth-teller.
It may be that these two people are rationalizing this fawning praise (in Birx’s case) or the weaker excuses for his false statements (by Fauci) as necessary so that they will be still included in the decision-making process and thus enable them to at least get some factual information to the public or correct some of the most egregiously wrong statements by Trump.
But the whole thing smacks of what one sees in highly authoritarian countries like North Korea where fawning public praise of the Dear Leader is mandatory. It is unseemly and no person with any self-respect should have to do it and it does not speak well of any country when its leader demands it.