WASHINGTON (AP) — A lack of clear, concise, and consistent messaging about the seriousness of the novel coronavirus in the first few months of its spread created a false sense of security among Americans that the pandemic would not be serious and prompted early inaction from the federal government .
That was the assessment of Dr. Deborah Birx, who served as COVID response coordinator under former President Donald Trump, testified for the first time before a House panel on Thursday about her time in the Trump administration.
“Not just the president, many of our leaders have used words like ‘we could contain them,’ and you can’t contain a virus that can’t be seen,” Birx said. “And he wasn’t seen because we weren’t testing.”
Birx appeared before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, whose partisan divide was apparent throughout the hearing, as Democrats turned their attention to missteps during the Trump administration, while Republicans did the same when it came to Democratic-run states like New York or New York went under the Biden administration when President Joe Biden, for example, overstated the effectiveness of vaccines by telling Americans in a CNN town hall, “You won’t get COVID if you have these shots.”
Much of the hearing focused on concerns Birx had about strategies used by Dr. Scott Atlas, who came to the White House as a pandemic adviser in the summer of 2020 and argued that it’s okay for people at low risk to catch the virus as long as the vulnerable are protected. Birx was asked why she thought this view was so dangerous.
“DR. Atlas’ view was that anyone who wasn’t going to have a serious illness should be allowed to get infected,” Birx said. The difficulty, she said, is the premise that the country would then be “in their 50s or 60s.” Millions of vulnerable Americans could magically be isolated from this infection at a high level.”
She said when Atlas and other officials took this view of the virus, it raised doubts among the American public.
“It created a feeling that everything could be right,” she said.
Birx also said that Atlas’ tenure “has destroyed any cohesion in the White House response itself.”
To underscore the division in the White House, the subcommittee released new emails, including from Birx to then-CDC Director Robert Redfield, then-FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In August. December 2000 email, Birx described a “very dangerous meeting yesterday at the OVAL” with a list of concerns. “The bottom line was that Dr. Atlas is brilliant and the President will now follow his instructions,” she wrote. She went on to say that she will continue to focus on working with states, but questioned her ability to change the President’s mind on what needs to be done, such as there has been uncontrolled community spread.
Atlas did not attend the hearing, but he did participate in a lengthy interview with committee staff earlier this year, in which he downplayed his role in the White House’s COVID effort.
“Dr. Birx was responsible for the policies that were implemented before and during my time there and also after I left. All along policy went straight from Dr. Birx to the governors and that has never changed,” Atlas said .
Atlas said his role in the White House was to relay information to the president and he criticized what he called “Birx-Fauci lockdowns,” which he called a failure.
“The old people were still dying. The infection continued to spread. It was a failure and tremendous harm has been done to our children and families by this comprehensive lockdown,” he told the committee.
A subcommittee report released in the days leading up to the hearing concluded that the Trump administration’s disregard for proven mitigation measures resulted in a federal response little different from the implementation of a deliberate herd immunity strategy.
Birx has predicted that the lives of 130,000 Americans could have been saved after the first wave of the pandemic had the federal government implemented “optimal mitigation” nationwide.
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