Trump’s campaign ‘distracted’ White House from preventing thousands of Covid-19 deaths, Birx tells Congress

Former coronavirus task force member tells lawmakers that administration’s failures in fall 2020 cost more than 130,000 lives

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 26 October 2021 21:39
US citizens will need vaccine or negative test to enter America, say White House officials

Donald Trump’s attention was more focused on the 2020 presidential election than the growing public health crisis with surging infections and deaths, a “distraction” from the one-term president’s chance at winning re-election, his former coronavirus response coordinator told members of Congress this month.

Dr Deborah Birx, during closed-door testimony with the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, testified that more than 130,000 American lives could have been saved from Covid-19 if the Trump administration followed the urgent guidance from public health 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 per cent less to 40 per cent less range,” she told lawmakers in her testimony on 12-13 October, according to excerpts shared by the committee on 26 October.

More than 735,000 people in the US have died from Covid-19 since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, including more than 300,000 since President Joe Biden entered office in January.

As infections climbed in the fall of 2020, topping more than 150,000 daily confirmed cases by November, Dr Birx “repeatedly raised the alarm” within the administration that “more mitigation, more treatment” were needed, including appeals to the public to wear masks and a “comprehensive communications plan explaining the critical elements of key mitigation measures,” according to the committee.

Instead, White House officials “were actively campaigning” and “not as present” with a narrow focus on campaigning that “took people’s time away from and distracted them away from the pandemic,” she told the committee.

“I felt like the White House had gotten somewhat complacent through the campaign season” about the Covid-19 response, she said. “They weren’t there and we weren’t having Covid meetings continuously.”

The committee previously reported that the Trump administration’s pandemic response took a “back seat” to promoting a spurious election fraud narrative while the White House chased “baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud instead of taking steps to ensure the nation was responding effectively to the pandemic”.

Her efforts also were stymied by Scott Atlas, who briefly served as special adviser to the president from August through September 2020. Dr Atlas resigned from his role in December after 130 days on the task force, during which he often contradicted public health officials, spread misinformation regarding “herd immunity” and was flagged by Twitter for claiming that masks do not work to slow the spread of the disease.

Dr Atlas “actually encouraged” people “to get the virus and spread the virus because that was your pathway, although it’s never said that way, to herd immunity,” Ms Birx said in her testimony.

She explained that Dr Atlas believes “anybody who wasn’t in the vulnerable group should be allowed to increase activities without mitigation because it didn’t matter if they became infected with Covid.”

“I think he believed there was almost zero risk to anybody unless it would result in hospitalization or death,” she said.

She told the committee she was “very worried” about the “dangerous” and “reckless” theories Dr Atlas suggested to Mr Trump and other proponents of herd immunity strategies during White House meetings with the president in attendance.

US Rep Jim Clyburn, who chairs the committee, said in a statement that the testimony from Dr Birx confirms Mr Trump’s “prioritization of politics, contempt for science, and refusal to follow the advice of public health experts undermined the nation’s ability to respond effectively to the coronavirus crisis.”

“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,” he said.

Mr Trump’s spokesperson Liz Harrington told The Independent in an emailed statement that the former president “led an unprecedented effort to successfully combat the coronavirus, delivering [personal protective equipment], 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.”

The Independent has requested comment from Dr Atlas.

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