WASHINGTON — Dr. Deborah L. Birx, who has carefully straddled the line between science and politics as she helps lead the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, delivered a stark private warning Monday, telling White House officials that the pandemic is entering a new and “deadly phase” that demands a more aggressive approach.
The warning, contained in a private memo to White House officials as the nation’s daily coronavirus caseload has broken records and approached 100,000, amounted to a direct contradiction of President Donald Trump’s repeated — and inaccurate — assertions that the pandemic is “rounding the corner.”
In the memo, Birx suggested that Trump and his advisers were spending too much time focusing on preventing lockdowns and not enough time on controlling the virus.
“We are entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic,” Birx wrote, adding: “This is not about lockdowns — it hasn’t been about lockdowns since March or April. It’s about an aggressive balanced approach that is not being implemented.”
The memo’s existence was reported earlier by The Washington Post. A top White House official who has seen it confirmed its contents.
The blunt message was a striking one for Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, who at least in public has taken care not to criticize the president or his administration. Her sharp critique reflects a growing concern among government scientists and public health experts that the worst of the pandemic is yet to come.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, has also been offering unusually blunt assessments, and is once again in Trump’s crosshairs as a result. At a campaign rally early Monday morning in Miami, the president attacked the news media for its emphasis on the virus, which prompted the crowd to chant: “Fire Fauci! Fire Fauci!”
To that, Trump responded: “Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election. I appreciate the advice.” Fauci has Civil Service protections, and it would be extremely difficult for the president to remove him, though Trump recently signed an executive order in an attempt to give himself more leeway to fire federal workers.
Birx, a respected AIDS researcher, was named the coronavirus response coordinator in March. The job has required her to manage the work of the White House coronavirus task force, tracking and orchestrating the government’s effort to contain the outbreak. In the early days of the pandemic, she projected a calm, authoritative presence — and a steady counterpoint to the mixed messages from Trump.
But her tendency to remain silent as the president spread misinformation has hurt her reputation, and some of her old allies in the AIDS advocacy world have turned against her, saying openly that she has lost credibility in their eyes. More recently, she has been eclipsed by Dr. Scott W. Atlas, Trump’s new pandemic adviser.
Birx and Fauci have both clashed with Atlas, who is not an epidemiologist and has called for the government to pursue a policy of allowing the virus to spread naturally among young people, while focusing efforts on protecting the elderly and vulnerable.
As Atlas’ star has risen within the White House, Birx has been spending most of her time on the road, traveling to coronavirus hot spots around the country and preaching the public health gospel of social distancing and wearing masks.
During a visit last week to North Dakota, she upbraided residents for being lax about covering their faces.
“Over the last 24 hours, as we were here and we were in your grocery stores and in your restaurants and frankly even in your hotels, this is the least use of masks that we have seen in retail establishments of any place we have been,” she told reporters during the visit, according to The Bismarck Tribune.