White House coronavirus adviser Deborah Birx says she wishes US had locked down like Italy

Key member of Trump administration’s task force spoke during tour of states battling ongoing outbreak

Andrew Naughtie
Tuesday 18 August 2020 13:49
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Deborah Birx wishes US had locked down like Italy

Dr Deborah Birx, a key coronavirus adviser to the Trump administration, used a press conference in Arkansas yesterday to voice her regret about the US’s early response to the pandemic, saying she wished the country had followed the example set by Italy and locked down both harder and quicker.

Her comments came with the US’s death rate stabilising at an average of roughly 1,000 per day, with the total death toll now above 170,000 – by far the world’s highest.

Speaking to the press, Dr Birx appeared candid as she gave her thoughts on the US’s initial approach to the crisis.

“I wish that when we went into lockdown, we looked like Italy,” she told the assembled reporters. “But when Italy locked down, people weren’t allowed out of their houses and they couldn’t come out but once every two weeks to buy groceries for one hour, and they had to have a certificate that said they were allowed.

“Americans don’t react well to that kind of prohibition.”

Italy was one of the world’s worst-hit countries in the early pandemic, with as many as 6,000 cases and hundreds of deaths being reported every day at the end of March. However, it has since brought the outbreak under control thanks to some of the strictest lockdown measures imposed in any western country, and is now reporting only a handful of deaths each day.

The US, meanwhile, has seen states enact uneven lockdown measures at different times, some of them reopening their economies against the advice of experts including Dr Birx. The national daily death toll has since risen from a low of 261 per day in July to around 1,000 per day currently, and so far shows no sign of declining again.

Dr Birx is on a “listening tour” through southern and southwestern states, during which she has met with governors of several states whose outbreaks have resurged over the summer months.

Arkansas counted relatively few cases through the spring, but a consistent upward surge starting in May drove the state’s total up with hundreds of new cases a day. The overall number now stands at just over 53,000, with 603 deaths.

However, the numbers have been dropping noticeably in recent weeks, something Dr Birx credited to Arkansans following common-sense practices of social distancing and mask-wearing.

Earlier in the day, during a meeting at the Arkansas governor’s mansion, Dr Birx acknowledged that measures to slow the pandemic are wearing many people down, and that many Americans were ready to give up if it seems the effort is going to go on for months to come – or longer.

“I talked to a nursing home resident yesterday in Oklahoma,” Dr Birx said, “and she was like: ‘We can’t keep this up. If you give us a timeline, we may be able to hold on another two or three months. We might be able to hold on till the holidays. But you can’t tell us that this is going to go on like this into 2021.’”

Discussing how she was asking officials what their citizens are willing to do rather than lecturing them about possible measures, she explained that public health measures were always a matter of give and take.

“When you’re asking people to change behaviour, you have to meet them where they are,” she said.

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