By August 2020, Dr. Deborah Birx made it known that she had hit her limit.
The Trump administration’s COVID-19 response coordinator, Birx had been asked to attend a COVID-19 roundtable event with some of the country’s leading advocates of the so-called “herd immunity” approach — figures that included neuroradiologist Scott Atlas, and Great Barrington Declaration authors Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff.
The theory pushed by those at the planned Aug. 25 roundtable held that the U.S. should focus on keeping COVID-19 out of long-term care facilities, leaving the virus to spread through the rest of the population until it had nobody left to infect. The Trump administration, with leadership absent during the preceding six months and the death toll approaching 180,000, alternated between grasping for a way to stem the economic impact of the pandemic and cracking down on federal officials who spoke honestly about the toll.
“Best if this proceeds without my presence,” Birx wrote in an Aug. 25 email, to 16 senior Trump White House officials. “I can’t be part of this with these people who believe in herd immunity,” she added in a lengthy follow-up message to Marc Short, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff.
The messages were released last week by the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which has been investigating the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic in 2020. Over the past few months, the panel has released reams of documents showing how senior epidemiologists struggled to influence the lurching, chaotic response around them — and how they were shut down at key points.
Taken together, the documents show the Trump administration’s response from the inside, with Birx and other senior government scientists reacting to attempts to tamp down knowledge of the true scale of the pandemic in the face of the then-upcoming 2020 elections.
Birx was appointed to coordinate the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response on Feb. 27, 2020 by Vice President Pence.
When she arrived, Birx told the House committee this year, she found something surprising: nothing.
In this case, it was that very little was being done to prepare the country for the virus, which was already spreading around the country by that point.
Birx told lawmakers that she was the first person, that she knew of, in the administration to contact the country’s main testing companies to coordinate a response and to see how much virus was spreading where.
“They had not heard from anyone?” a committee member asked. Birx nodded in response.
Fast forward to six months later — August 2020.
By that point, the country had seen two successive waves of COVID. Winter — and the 2020 elections — were around the corner, with hundreds of thousands of Americans to die during the coming surge.
But on Aug. 24 — the day before the “roundtable” event with herd immunity backers -— something strange happened at the CDC.
The agency changed its testing recommendations. For months, it had recommended that anyone exposed to someone infected with COVID-19 should get tested, even if they had no symptoms.
On Aug. 24, that guidance changed. Now, the CDC no longer recommended tests for the asymptomatic but exposed.
Birx told lawmakers that she regarded the change as an intentional effort to limit the number of COVID-19 tests being conducted in the U.S.
In a call with reporters the week that the guidance was released, Trump administration testing czar Brett Giroir said that “conceptually, we don’t believe the number of tests should go down. Conceptually, we believe the number of tests will go up.”
That’s not what happened, Birx said.
“We saw a dramatic decline of the number of tests performed during the end of August and the beginning of September,” she told lawmakers. “This document resulted in less testing and less — less aggressive testing of those without symptoms that I believed were the primary reason for the early community spread.”
Giroir also claimed that “everyone signed off on it before it got to a place where the political leadership would have even seen it.”
Birx told lawmakers that his statement was false, and that it rankled her: “I personally wrote to Brett Giroir after he went out on the press and said that there was consensus, because I made it clear in task force that I did not agree with the guidance as it was written.”
In the months that followed, COVID-19 spread rapidly and the death toll skyrocketed. By Feb. 1, 2021, more than 433,000 Americans would be dead of the virus — 250,000 more than had died at the end of August 2020.
Nancy Messonnier, then the head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, said that the directive to change the guidance came from up top.
“I believe it was just the White House,” she said in her testimony. “I don’t know who.”