On Tuesday, Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator, suggests she will end decades of government service after the Biden transition is complete. The move comes after controversy over how she spent her Thanksgiving and articles suggesting the incoming government isn’t sure whether to keep her. Birx was a widely respected public health official until she took over the response to the coronavirus, which has linked her to misinformation from Trump and many other members of his administration.
Birx’s governmental career began in the 1980s, when she served in the Army and Army Reserves, eventually reaching the rank of Colonel. During this time, she often worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but also spent time in Anthony Fauci’s lab of the National Institutes of Health. But much of her reputation is based on her work in the fight against AIDS, first with the CDC and later as the US Global AIDS Coordinator, where her work was widely acclaimed.
That reputation earned her a prominent place in the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Trump naming her the Coronavirus Response Coordinator and giving her an influential place on the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force. However, this ultimately put her in an untenable position, as Trump himself was a frequent source of misinformation about the pandemic, and much of the White House staff often ignored public health guidelines emanating from elsewhere in the administration. Birx was left with what turned out to be an impossible task: to maintain her job and influence by not publicly contradicting Trump’s inaccuracies and policies, while trying to ensure the public received quality information.
Its failure to effectively curb disinformation severely undermined its credibility with the medical and public health communities. And in Scott Atlas, Trump finally found someone who embraced both the misinformation and the misguided policies. As a result, despite having compromised her credibility, Birx was sidelined by the White House.
Her service during this time was also notable for a conflict with her former agency, the CDC, over the collection of public health data during the pandemic. Birx shifted the responsibility for collecting hospital capacity data from the CDC to its parent company, the Department of Health and Human Services. The move caused ill will within the CDC and prevented the data from becoming more widely available until some of it leaked out.
More recently, Birx has been criticized for traveling to a family home during Thanksgiving. While Birx said everyone in the house was already part of the group she isolated herself with, the move seemed to violate the CDC’s public health advice.
The incoming Biden administration clearly does not view service with Trump as disqualifying, as it quickly embraced Anthony Fauci and offered him a role as a health adviser. And earlier this month, there were indications that Birx was interested in continuing the pandemic from within the new administration. But those clues were quickly followed by reports that the history described above made many in Biden’s planning circle wary of welcoming Birx, considering her credibility seriously tarnished.
In response, Birx has apparently decided not to push things and has announced that she would be retiring after helping bring the incoming administration up to speed. The move will end a long and distinguished career, but will hopefully allow the Biden administration to contain the pandemic without defending the previous response.