The White House coronavirus task force coordinator under former President Donald Trump says she believes the COVID-19 death toll in the country would have been “decreased substantially” had the previous government responded more effectively in the early days of the outbreak.
Dr Deborah Birx said that while the initial surge in March last year caught health officials off guard, better messaging and coordination from the government could have reduced the number of deaths later.
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“There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge,” Birx said in an interview with CNN. “The rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”
The US has reported more than 30 million coronavirus infections, including more than 549,000 deaths, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
Trump had downplayed the outbreak in its early stages, resisted mitigation efforts and criticised harsh lockdown measures imposed to stop the spread of the virus. He repeatedly eschewed guidance on mask-wearing that health experts say reduces the risk of catching the infection.
Untruths and pressure
Birx was one of several former Trump officials to detail dysfunction, infighting, and an aversion to the truth they said hindered the government and public response to the pandemic.
In the CNN report, Admiral Brett Giroir, who headed the government’s testing effort, said the administration had lied about the number of publicly available tests, conflating available “components” needed to make the tests with ready-to-use tests.
Meanwhile, Dr Robert Redfield, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention under Trump, told the network that then-health secretary Alex M Azar and his allies had pressured him to revise weekly COVID-19 morbidity and mortality reports.
Birx, who has faced criticism for not standing up more forcefully in public to Trump’s misinformation about the pandemic, recounted a “very uncomfortable” call with the former president after describing how widespread the virus was in an interview with CNN in August last year, during which she told people living in rural areas that they were not immune.
Trump, who tested positive for the virus in October, was running for re-election at the time.
“Everybody in the White House was upset with that interview and the clarity that I brought about the epidemic,” Birx said.
“I got called by the president. It was very uncomfortable, very direct, and very difficult to hear.”