Trump’s COVID Task Force Leader Pushed Back on ‘Herd Immunity’ ApproachJune 23, 2022
Deborah Birx, MD, former White House coronavirus response coordinator under President Trump, responded to a flurry of questions from Democratic lawmakers related to efforts by the former president to minimize the dangers of the pandemic for political gain, during a hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Response on Thursday.
“Our investigations have found that the Trump administration engaged in a rapid campaign of political interference in the pandemic response — minimizing, undermining, and eventually even suppressing the work of scientists and public health experts in a misguided and dangerous attempt to advance the President’s political goals,” said Subcommittee Chair James Clyburn (D-S.C.).
On Tuesday, the subcommittee released a report detailing the Trump administration’s support for herd immunity, which the subcommittee argued may have played a part in high rates of preventable deaths in the fall and winter of 2021.
Clyburn stated that Birx estimated that more than 130,000 Americans died from COVID before vaccines were available “as a result of the previous administration’s failures.”
Birx confirmed the figure later in the hearing as well as the rationale that those deaths could have been prevented in the first year of the pandemic if Trump had implemented proven mitigation measures.
Members of the subcommittee specifically asked Birx about her thoughts on the role of Scott Atlas, MD, a radiologist and former special coronavirus adviser to President Trump who has no infectious diseases background, in steering the president away from an evidence-based approach and towards herd immunity.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D- N.Y.) asked Birx about an August 11, 2020, email she sent to then-CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, MD, and Anthony Fauci, MD, then a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, warning them of a “dangerous meeting” in the Oval Office.
Birx explained that she was referring to a meeting in the Oval Office in which Atlas was present. While Birx said she focused her comments during the meeting on the “depth and the breadth of viral spread” across the southern states and on “rising hospitalizations” that would soon become “rising deaths,” Atlas used the same meeting to discourage mitigation measures.
Birx recalled Atlas saying that “it didn’t matter what you did, each of these surges would be identical. It didn’t matter if you tested.”
Atlas even went so far as to say that testing and isolating young people “was an infringement of their rights and was equivalent to a lockdown,” Birx said, repeating that his ideas about infectious diseases were, in her estimation, “dangerous.”
“We never encourage individuals who are infected with a contagious virus, no matter how that virus is spread, to go out and spread that virus to others. That is a basic principle of public health. And so I used that opportunity to do my best to push back on his views,” she said.
Birx noted that the idea of allowing infection to “run through the population in those who are not vulnerable” was always flawed. Even today there are still approximately 35 million Americans over age 70 who are vulnerable to severe disease, even with vaccines and boosters.
“When you have community spread, you cannot protect those 35 million Americans who live in multigenerational households,” she said.
About 1.5 million Americans actually live in long-term care facilities, Birx noted. “And so whatever strategy we have has to speak to all of them.”
The committee also played back-to-back news clips of the former president stating inaccurately that the pandemic was “going to disappear” alongside other comments, including the now famous suggestion that officials study whether injecting bleach into the body might get rid of SARS-CoV-2.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) asked about the bleach comment and the one that followed in which Trump added, “supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or some other way.”
Birx said this example “illustrates clearly that people were communicating with the president’s dangerous ideas whether it was hydroxychloroquine … hydroxychloroquine combined with azithromycin, which we know has an impact on the heart. These [ideas] were coming into the White House on a daily basis from different individuals, and I wasn’t there for a majority of those discussions.”
The former Coronavirus response coordinator also commented on mistakes made by the CDC in tracking the spread of the virus.
“If we had been diagnosing RSV [respiratory syncytial virus], flu, or influenza, we would have had the lab capacity at every single clinic and every single hospital … We would have been able to diagnose flu and we would have seen that there was a circulating virus that did not match any of those laboratory diagnoses. And we would have seen it coming,” Birx said.
“And so 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 drive that.”
During his turn at the dais, subcommittee Ranking Member Steve Scalise (R-La.) argued that the hearing was just another attempt by Democrats to “continue their political vendetta against the former Trump administration, while continuing to mask the many failures that have occurred with respect to COVID-19 under the Biden administration.”
While much of the hearing did center around the Trump administration and, as Scalise framed it, “things that happened more than 2 years ago,” Birx acknowledged in her opening remarks that hospitalization rates and deaths continued to surge both in 2020 and 2021. Notably, the “summer surge of 2021 was about 40% more deadly than the summer surge of 2020,” she said.
Birx, at several points during the hearing, centered her concerns for the pandemic’s spread in rural America:
“I fear today that we’re still not effectively using our tools across all of America, particularly in rural America … Rural America is older, poorer, has higher comorbidities, less access to primary care, less access to subspecialty care, less access to high-technology care, and a higher death rate from all cause mortality dating back decades.”