Donald Trump Was More Focused on Reelection Than Preventing COVID Deaths, Dr. Deborah Birx Says

The former White House coronavirus coordinator told members of Congress that she believes 130,000-plus lives could have been saved if mitigation efforts were properly implemented — while a Trump spokeswoman defended his "unprecedented" work

Deborah Birx
Photo: MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

Former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx recently told members of Congress that she believes Donald Trump failed to do everything he could as president to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. and was instead focused on his reelection campaign.

In testimony before the House's Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Oct. 12 and 13, Birx said that in the fall of 2020, the upcoming November election "took people's time away from and distracted them away from the pandemic," according to transcripts of the hearings.

"I felt like the White House had gotten somewhat complacent through the campaign season," she also said, adding that officials "weren't there and we weren't having COVID meetings continuously."

Birx testified that, in her view, more than 130,000 lives could have been saved after the first wave of the pandemic if the Trump administration had pushed for or required certain mitigation measures that she recommended to both federal and state officials.

"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.

Dr. Deborah Birx
Dr. Deborah Birx. Alex Wong/Getty

Asked directly if the president "did everything he could to try to mitigate the spread of the virus and save lives during the pandemic," Birx replied: "No."

She said she made it "very clear to the president in specifics" what she asked him to do, including "more mitigation, more treatment and early use of vaccines to protect the elderly."

In a statement to PEOPLE, Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington defended the president, arguing he "led an unprecedented effort to successfully combat the coronavirus, delivering PPE, hospital beds, treatments, and three vaccines in record time." (Trump aides have long defended his pandemic response in these terms.)

In her testimony this month, Birx also answered questions about Trump adviser Dr. Scott Atlas, who arranged meetings with the president and advocates of a so-called "herd immunity" strategy in August 2020.

In describing that approach, Birx said Atlas believed that "anybody who was only going to have mild disease or asymptomatic disease should be allowed and actually encouraged to get the virus."

Deborah Birx
President Donald Trump and Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus task force response coordinator, at a coronavirus briefing on April 6. Alex Brandon/AP/Shutterstock

She called his suggestions "reckless" and criticized his use of "partial data to support his theories."

"I felt that he was utilizing incomplete information to make his case," she said, "and I think that is always very dangerous."

Though she didn't want to participate in the August 2020 discussion "to give any credibility to the positions being taken," Birx said she "was constantly raising the alert in the doctors' meetings of the depth of my concern about Dr. Atlas' position, Dr. Atlas' access, Dr. Atlas' theories and hypothesis, and the depths and breadths of my concern."

Atlas gave a statement to The Washington Post denying the assertion that he advocated for less mitigation.

"I never advised the President, the Task Force, or anyone else while in Washington to allow the virus to spread," Atlas said. He also encouraged measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing, the paper reported.

Birx, a protege of Dr. Anthony Fauci, was at the forefront of the White House's COVID strategy in 2020 along with Fauci. But she was criticized in some circles for how she navigated Trump's habit of misinformation.

In an interview with CBS earlier this year, Birx, now retired, suggested her role in the White House limited her work as a public health advocate.

"When you have a pandemic where you're relying on every American to change their behavior, communication is absolutely key, and so every time a statement was made by a political leader that wasn't consistent with public health needs, that derailed our response," she said then. "It is also why I went out on the road, because I wasn't censored on the road."

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