WASHINGTON – The Trump administration was “distracted” by last year’s election and ignored recommendations to curb the pandemic, the White House’s former coronavirus response coordinator told congressional investigators this month.
“I felt like the White House had gotten somewhat complacent through the campaign season,” said Deborah Birx, who President Donald Trump chose in March 2020 to steer his government’s virus response, according to interview excerpts released by the House select subcommittee on the pandemic.
Birx, who sat for interviews with the subcommittee on Oct. 12 and 13, also detailed advice that she said the White House ignored late last year, including more aggressively testing younger Americans, expanding access to virus treatments and better distributing vaccine doses in long-term care facilities.
More than 130,000 American lives could have been saved with swifter action and better coordinated public health messages after the virus’s first wave, Birx told investigators.
“I believe if we had fully implemented the mask mandates, the reduction in indoor dining, the getting friends and family to understand the risk of gathering in private homes, and we had increased testing, that we probably could have decreased fatalities into the 30-percent-less to 40-percent-less range,” Birx said.
More than 735,000 Americans have died of coronavirus-related complications since the pandemic began, including more than 300,000 since President Joe Biden took office.
Birx earlier this year told reporters about the difficulty of responding to the pandemic during an election year. Asked to elaborate on her prior comments, Birx told the subcommittee that some officials “were actively campaigning and not as present in the White House as previously.”
The election year “just took people’s time away from and distracted them away from the pandemic in my personal opinion,” Birx said. She did not name the officials.
The White House coronavirus task force, which was chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, met only sporadically in the run-up to the election. Trump also downplayed the pandemic in public comments last fall, saying at one September 2020 campaign rally that the virus “affects virtually nobody” younger than age 18.
Asked directly if Trump “did everything he could to try to mitigate the spread of the virus and save lives during the pandemic,” Birx responded, “No.”
“I’ve said that to the White House in general, and I believe I was very clear to the President in specifics of what I needed him to do,” Birx added, declining to share those specifics.
Birx could not immediately be reached for comment.
Asked about Birx’s criticism, a spokesperson for Trump touted the former president’s handling of the pandemic.
“President Trump led an unprecedented effort to successfully combat the coronavirus, delivering PPE, hospital beds, treatments, and three vaccines in record time. Unfortunately, this approach was not taken up by the current government, and more lives have been lost from covid this year than the entirety of 2020, which the Fake News media places no blame onto Joe Biden,” spokeswoman Liz Harrington said in a statement.
Other former Trump officials have acknowledged that last year’s political fights were sometimes prioritized over battling the pandemic. Steven Hatfill, who served as a White House coronavirus adviser, told colleagues that Trump’s attempt to challenge last year’s election results also distracted from the virus response last winter, according to documents previously released by the subcommittee.
Democrats said Birx’s comments helped illustrate last year’s troubled response.
“The Trump White House’s prioritization of election year politics over the pandemic response – even as cases surged last fall – is among the worst failures of leadership in American history,” Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., who chairs the subcommittee, said in a statement.
In her interviews with investigators, Birx also reiterated her long-standing criticism of former White House adviser Scott Atlas, faulting him for advocating “dangerous” theories such as encouraging some Americans to be deliberately infected with the coronavirus to reach “herd immunity” – the point when the general population develops sufficient immunity to a virus that it cannot easily spread.
Birx also told investigators that Atlas – a Stanford University radiologist who had no prior experience in pandemic response – organized an August 2020 meeting among Trump and the three physicians who later authored the “Great Barrington Declaration,” which called for deliberately hastening herd immunity.
Atlas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.