Say what you will about the likes of Gavin Newsom breaking his own social-distancing rules to dine with lobbyist buddies at a chichi restaurant, just don’t say you’re surprised. Politics is a profession that selects for self-important tools with dubious ethics. The surprise isn’t that Newsom and London Breed and other pols across various states have been caught ignoring the regulations laid down for the hoi polloi. The surprise is that more haven’t. It’s out of character!
But this is genuinely surprising. Shocking, even.
What would possess Deborah Birx, a professional scientist and now one of the two most famous doctors in America, to conclude that she had no obligation to avoid unnecessary travel while she was begging the rest of the country to do so?
It’s a reputation-wrecker. Newsom can always apologize and say that he had a “lapse,” that he’s just an average joe like you and me at heart, but no one has spent more time over the past nine months evangelizing about social distancing than Birx has. It feels a bit like the Pope getting caught doing something he shouldn’t have. Sure, he’s a human being, and human beings sin. But c’mon. He’s the Pope.
The question is: Are we sure Birx actually broke the “rules” here?
The day after Thanksgiving, she traveled to one of her vacation properties on Fenwick Island in Delaware. She was accompanied by three generations of her family from two households. Birx, her husband Paige Reffe, a daughter, son-in-law and two young grandchildren were present…
She insisted the purpose of the roughly 50-hour visit was to deal with the winterization of the property before a potential sale — something she says she previously hadn’t had time to do because of her busy schedule.
“I did not go to Delaware for the purpose of celebrating Thanksgiving,” Birx said in her statement, adding that her family shared a meal together while in Delaware.
Birx said that everyone on her Delaware trip belongs to her “immediate household,” even as she acknowledged they live in two different homes.
Birx has three homes. She lives with her husband in one in Washington. The second is the Delaware vacation home mentioned above. And the third is a home in Potomac, Maryland, where her parents *and* her daughter *and* her grandchildren live, and where Birx occasionally comes and goes. It sounds to me like they’re all in a so-called “quarantine bubble” together — that is, they’ve been interacting since the start of the pandemic and are isolating from the rest of the world. If that’s true, and if they’re being diligent about isolating, then they’re not doing anything differently from the standpoint of infection risk than any family that’s quarantining in the same household. They’re just doing it in two different structures, the Washington house and the Potomac house.
In which case, Birx’s trip didn’t actually put anyone at risk. Her husband, daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids are all part of the same “household.” They just live in different buildings. What’s the difference between that and a single building where the family all sleeps under the same roof?
But wait. There’s actually *another* household that’s intersecting with the Potomac household where Birx’s parents, daughter, and grandkids live: “Margaret Flynn, the children’s other grandmother comes to the Potomac home to provide child care, then returns to her husband [in Baltimore], who has health complications. Birx said that she hasn’t seen the other grandmother since the beginning of the pandemic and does not know how frequently she visits the Potomac house.” Flynn is 77 and her husband is 92.
Are they in the “bubble” with Birx’s family too? Because if not, it sure seems dangerous for Birx to risk bringing COVID into the Potomac house where Flynn could get it and carry it back home to her elderly, ailing husband in Baltimore. Or vice versa: Hypothetically Flynn could bring it into the Potomac house where Birx could pick it up and bring it into the White House. (Although the flaw in that theory is that the White House is already a pit of disease and infestation where nearly everyone’s been infected already.) The Flynns’ daughter told the AP that she’s worried her parents or Birx’s aged parents could be at risk from the comings and goings in the Potomac house, which makes me think they’re *not* all in a “bubble” together.
The worst-case scenario here, in other words, is that Birx really is breaking the rules by occasionally inhabiting the same indoor space as members of another household. The best-case scenario is that they’re all technically within the rules but that Birx now has to explain a complicated situation to a skeptical, pandemic-fatigued public.
Seems like something Joe Biden might not want to saddle himself with. Remember that Birx is reportedly looking to stay on after January 20 to help manage the end of the pandemic but Team Joe is iffy about her. She’s acquired a base of knowledge that’s potentially useful to them but she’s also provided soundbites like this to the public that have led Trump skeptics to scoff at her:
"[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
Birx also famously declined to correct Trump after his musings at a press briefing earlier this year about using some sort of disinfectant to clean the body internally of COVID. She just doesn’t have the same credibility across both sides of the aisle that Anthony Fauci has, so if she stays on it’ll probably be in a less visible role.
But after this revelation about her traveling while she was urging others not to do so, why would Biden even want the headache of keeping her on staff? “To me this disqualifies her from any future government health position,” said a Georgetown virologist to the AP. “It’s a terrible message for someone in public health to be sending to the American people.”
I for one am very excited for the Debbie Birx tell-all to come in which she finally says what she really thinks about Trump, Scott Atlas, Alex Azar, and the CDC’s performance over the past year. Or, if not a tell-all, at least her testimony: There’s lots of chatter in Democratic circles about forming a commission to investigate the myriad failures of America’s pandemic response and few people are better positioned to shed light on what went on at the White House than Birx. She could be quite damaging to Trump’s legacy potentially — assuming she doesn’t end up becoming the fall guy herself.