Dr. Deborah L. Birx, President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 response co-ordinator, told a congressional committee investigating the federal pandemic response that Trump White House officials asked her to change or delete parts of the weekly guidance she sent state and local health officials, in what she described as a consistent effort to stifle information as coronavirus cases surged in the second half of 2020.
Birx also told the committee that Trump White House officials withheld the reports from states during a winter outbreak and refused to publicly release the documents, which featured data on the virus’ spread and recommendations for how to contain it.
Birx became a controversial figure during her time in the Trump White House. A respected AIDS researcher, she was plucked from her position running the government’s program to combat the international HIV epidemic to co-ordinate the federal COVID-19 response.
But her credibility came into question when she failed to correct Trump’s unscientific musings about the coronavirus and praised him on television as being “attentive to the scientific literature.”
Her account of White House interference came in a multiday interview the committee conducted in October 2021, which was released Thursday with a set of emails that Birx sent to colleagues in 2020 warning of the influence of a new White House pandemic adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, who she said downplayed the threat of the virus. The emails provide fresh insight into how Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, grappled with what Birx called the “misinformation” spread by Atlas.
The push to downplay the threat was so pervasive, Birx told committee investigators, that she developed techniques to avoid attention from White House officials who might have objected to her public health recommendations. In reports she prepared for local health officials, she said, she would sometimes put ideas at the ends of sentences so that colleagues skimming her reports would not notice them.
In one e-mail obtained by the committee, dated Aug. 11, 2020, Birx recounted to Fauci and other colleagues what she called a “very dangerous” Oval Office meeting with Trump, in which Atlas argued against testing for the virus, saying it could hurt Trump’s re-election efforts and had “falsely” inflated case counts.
In addition to Fauci, the email was sent to Dr. Robert Redfield, then the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Dr. Stephen Hahn, then the Food and Drug Administration commissioner. In it, Birx claimed that Atlas had inspired Trump to call for narrower recommendations on who should seek testing.
“Case identification is bad for the president’s re-election – testing should only be of the sick,” she recounted Atlas saying.
“He noted that it was the task force that got us into this ditch by promoting testing and falsely increasing case counts compared to other countries,” she added, referring to a group of senior health officials that gathered regularly at the White House. “The conclusion was Dr. Atlas is brilliant and the president will be following his guidance now.”
In another e-mail sent to senior health officials two days later, Birx catalogued seven ideas espoused by Atlas that she regarded as misinformation, including that the virus was comparable to the flu and that “children are immune.”
“I am at a loss of what we should do,” she wrote, warning that if caseloads kept mounting, there would be “300K dead by Dec.” The United States ended the year with more than 350,000 COVID-19 deaths.
In her interviews with the committee last year, Birx described regular efforts to undermine the weekly pandemic assessments she first sent to state and local officials in June 2020, which offered “comprehensive data and state-specific recommendations regarding the status of the pandemic,” the committee wrote in a news release.
Beginning in the fall of that year, Birx said, she began receiving “a list of changes for three or four states” each week, which sometimes involved attempts to loosen mask recommendations or indoor capacity restrictions. In one instance, she was asked to soften guidance intended for South Dakota officials and remove some recommendations for the state, which had a surge in case counts at the time.
Birx told committee investigators that she was asked to change the reports about “25 per cent” of the time or else they would not be sent.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.