If the CDC hadn’t crapped the bed on distributing an accurate diagnostic test expeditiously last January and February, and if experts hadn’t told the public a “noble lie” early about masks being ineffective in order to preserve the existing supply for medical personnel, we might have been able to limit the first 100,000 too.
A debate will rage for decades about whether the United States performed uniquely poorly in managing its pandemic or only about as badly as other major western nations did. We’re the worst by far in cases per capita among large countries but Belgium, the UK, and Italy each have seen more deaths per capita. Portugal and Spain have death rates similar to ours. And we’re lapping them in vaccinations, as you likely already know. Europe is mired in a third wave of COVID right now that probably won’t reach the U.S. because we’ve immunized too many people for the virus to get a national foothold again.
But saying “we haven’t been especially bad” is different from saying “we couldn’t have done better.” Birx’s point in this clip, I think, is that we could have and should have been sticklers about states following the federal benchmarks for reopening developed by the Trump White House last spring. The president himself wasn’t a stickler about it, famously. In his haste to get the economy going again, the benchmarks became an afterthought from practically the day they were announced.
What’s left unsaid in the clip is that, according to an NYT report last summer, it was partly Birx’s own undue optimism about the arc of the pandemic that encouraged the White House to push harder for early reopening:
“All metros are stabilizing,” she would tell [White House staff last spring], describing the virus as having hit its “peak” around mid-April. The New York area accounted for half of the total cases in the country, she said. The slope was heading in the right direction. “We’re behind the worst of it.” She endorsed the idea that the death counts and hospitalization numbers could be inflated.
For Dr. Birx, Italy’s experience was a particularly telling — and positive — comparison. She routinely told colleagues that the United States was on the same trajectory as Italy, which had huge spikes before infections and deaths flattened to close to zero…
Dr. Birx would roam the halls of the White House, talking to Mr. Kushner, Ms. Hicks and others, sometimes passing out diagrams to bolster her case. “We’ve hit our peak,” she would say, and that message would find its way back to Mr. Trump.
Dr. Birx began using versions of the phrase “putting out the embers,” wording that was later picked up by the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, and by Mr. Trump himself.
The White House came to believe that America would sail through the summer with few cases before a fall surge inevitably began. That turned out not to be true in the south, where states like Texas had nasty outbreaks as the weather turned hotter and forced people to spend more time indoors.
As the summer surge developed, Birx realized that the pandemic wouldn’t be limited to cool weather — or to dense urban areas. There’s another clip of her from the same interview as the one above that’s making the rounds today, and this one’s a doozy:
That’s plausible. Remember how Vanity Fair described the White House’s thinking about the shape of the pandemic last summer — again, partly due to Birx’s own influence. Reportedly Jared Kushner had developed a plan to rapidly increase testing across the United States, which surely would have mitigated the final death toll, but the plan foundered:
Worried about the stock market and his reelection prospects, Trump … feared that more testing would only lead to higher case counts and more bad publicity. Meanwhile, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, was reportedly sharing models with senior staff that optimistically—and erroneously, it would turn out—predicted the virus would soon fade away.
Against that background, the prospect of launching a large-scale national plan was losing favor, said one public health expert in frequent contact with the White House’s official coronavirus task force.
Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert.
True to form, the White House just didn’t care as much about mitigating a problem that seemed initially like it would ravage denser Democratic states while sparing more sparsely populated Republican ones. Once Birx started warning the public that that wasn’t the case, that this was a true national problem that would soon bedevil red states the way it had blue ones, Trump and his deputies naturally would have freaked out behind the scenes. They wanted as much of the economy open as possible, yet here was Birx warning Republican governors that they were tempting fate even in rural areas by not imposing more restrictions.
As to what Trump specifically said to her in the phone call she describes, we’re left to wonder. But it’s revealing that she won’t deny that she was threatened when Gupta asks her.
She’s being decimated on social media this morning for revealing that, by the way — and not by righties. The left has despised Birx since she took to praising Trump’s engagement with the COVID management process early last year. She held her tongue too after his infamous press conference at which he suggested injecting something like disinfectant to cleanse the body of the virus. In the wake of this new interview, Democrats are demanding to know why she didn’t quit the COVID task force and reveal how the White House was trying to muzzle her in the name of keeping businesses open at the expense of public health. (Gupta himself politely alludes to that in introducing the bit from the interview.) It’s not like she had tremendous influence over setting policy after the initial wave last spring and would have lost that influence if she resigned. A Twitter pal joked of her apparent mindset, “Better for her advice to be ignored from the inside than from the outside.” Why didn’t she quit?