The former White House coronavirus response coordinator told CBS News’s “Face The Nation” that she saw Trump presenting graphs about the coronavirus that she did not help make. Someone inside or outside of the administration, she said, “was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the president.”
Birx also said that there were people in the White House who believed the coronavirus was a hoax and that she was one of only two people in the White House who routinely wore masks.
Birx was often caught between criticism from Trump, who at one point called her “pathetic” on Twitter when she contradicted his more optimistic predictions for the virus, and critics in the scientific community who thought she did not do enough to combat false information about the virus from Trump, The Post’s Meryl Kornfield reports.
“Colleagues of mine that I’d known for decades — decades — in that one experience, because I was in the White House, decided that I had become this political person, even though they had known me forever,” she told CBS. “I had to ask myself every morning, ‘Is there something that I think I can do that would be helpful in responding to this pandemic?’ And it’s something I asked myself every night.”
Anthony Fauci,director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,told the New York Times that Trump repeatedly tried to minimize the severity of the virus and would often chide him for not being positive enough in his statements about the virus.
Fauci also described facing death threats as he was increasingly vilified by the president’s supporters.“One day I got a letter in the mail, I opened it up and a puff of powder came all over my face and my chest,” he said. The powder turned out to be benign.
Anthony Fauci on Friday said that a lack of facts “likely did” cost lives over the last year in the nation’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
In an appearance on CNN, the nation’s leading infectious diseases expert was directly asked whether a “lack of candor or facts” contributed to the number of lives lost during the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.
“You know it very likely did,” Fauci said. “You know I don’t want that … to be a sound bite, but I think if you just look at that,you can see that when you’re starting to go down paths that are not based on any science at all, that is not helpful at all, and particularly when you’re in a situation of almost being in a crisis with the number of cases and hospitalizations and deaths that we have.”
“When you start talking about things that make no sense medically and no sense scientifically, that clearly is not helpful,” he continued.
President Biden on Thursday unveiled a new national coronavirus strategy that is, in part, aimed at “restoring trust in the American people.”
When asked why that was important, Fauci recognized that the past year of dealing with the pandemic had been filled with divisiveness.
“There’s no secret. We’ve had a lot of divisiveness, we’ve had facts that were very, very clear that were questioned. People were not trusting what health officials were saying, there was great divisiveness, masks became a political issue,” Fauci said.
“So what the president was saying right from the get-go was, ‘Let’s reset this. Let everybody get on the same page, trust each other, let the science speak.’”
Fauci, who was thrust into the national spotlight last year as part of former President Trump‘s coronavirus task force, often found himself at odds with the former president. Trump frequently downplayed the severity of the virus and clashed publicly with Fauci.
Speaking during a White House press briefing on Thursday, Fauci said it was “liberating” to be working in the Biden administration.
There have been more than 24,600,000 coronavirus infections in the U.S. since the pandemic began, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University. More than 410,000 people have died.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Monday that 2.1 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have been administered in two weeks. While this might sound like an impressive number, it should set off alarms.
Let’s start with the math. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease doctor, estimates that 80 to 85 percent of Americans need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses. Eighty percent of the American population is around 264 million people, so we need to administer 528 million doses to achieve herd immunity.
At the current rate, it would take the United States approximately 10 years to reach that level of inoculation. That’s right — 10 years. Contrast that with the Trump administration’s rosy projections: Earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar predicted that every American will be able to get the vaccine by the second quarter of 2021 (which would be the end of June). The speed needed to do that is 3.5 million vaccinations a day.
There’s reason to believe the administration won’t be able to ramp up vaccination rates anywhere close to those levels. Yes, as vaccine production increases, more will be available to the states. And Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at HHS, argued on Sunday that the 2.1 million administered vaccines figure was an underestimate due to delayed reporting. So let’s be generous and say the administration actually administered 4 million doses over the first two weeks.
But even that would still fall far short of the 3.5 million vaccinations needed per day. In fact, it falls far short of what the administration had promised to accomplish by the end of 2020 — enough doses for 20 million people. And remember, the first group of vaccinations was supposed to be the easiest: It’s hospitals and nursing homes inoculating their own workers and residents. If we can’t get this right, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country.
Here’s what concerns me most: Instead of identifying barriers to meeting the goal, officials are backtracking on their promises. When states learned they would receive fewer doses than they had been told, the administration said its end-of-year goal was not for vaccinations but vaccine distribution. It also halved the number of doses that would be available to people, from 40 million to 20 million. (Perhaps they hoped no one would notice that their initial pledge was to vaccinate 20 million people, which is 40 million doses, or that President Trump had at one point vowed to have 100 million doses by the end of the year.) And there’s more fancy wordplay that’s cause for concern: Instead of vaccine distribution, the administration promises “allocation” in December. Actual delivery for millions of doses wouldn’t take place until January, to say nothing of the logistics of vaccine administration.
The vaccine rollout is giving me flashbacks to the administration’s testing debacle. Think back to all the times Trump pledged that “everyone who wants a test can get one.” Every time this was fact-checked, it came up false. Instead of admitting that there wasn’t enough testing, administration officials followed a playbook to confuse and obfuscate: They first attempted to play up the number of tests done. Just like 2 million vaccines in two weeks, 1 million tests a week looked good on paper — until they were compared to the 30 million a day that some experts say are needed. The administration then tried to justify why more tests weren’t needed. Remember Trump saying that “tests create cases” or the CDC issuing nonsensical testing guidance?
When that didn’t work, Trump officials deflected blame to the states. Never mind that there should have been a national strategy or that states didn’t have the resources to ramp up testing on their own. It was easier to find excuses than to admit that they were falling short and do the hard work to remedy it.
Instead of muddying the waters, the federal government needs to take three urgent steps. First, set up a real-time public dashboard to track vaccine distribution. The public needs to know exactly how many doses are being delivered, distributed and administered. Transparency will help hold the right officials accountable, as well as target additional resources where they are most needed.
Second, publicize the plan for how vaccination will scale up so dramatically. States have submitted their individual plans to the CDC, but we need to see a national strategy that sets ambitious but realistic goals.
Third, acknowledge the challenges and end the defensiveness. The public will understand if initial goals need to be revised, but there must be willingness to learn from missteps and immediately course-correct.
I remain optimistic that vaccines will one day end this horrific pandemic that has taken far too many lives. To get there, we must approach the next several months with urgency, transparency and humility.
If you decided to read the names of every American who is known to have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, at a rate of one per second starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, you would not finish until a bit after 10 a.m. Saturday. Except, of course, that’s only including the deaths known as of writing; by then, we can expect 8,000 more deaths, pushing the recitation past noon.
Preliminary federal figures indicate that more than 3.2 million Americans will die over the course of 2020, the highest figure on record. It’s just a bit shy of 1 percent of the total population as of July 1, and about 1 in 10 of those deaths will be a result of covid-19.
That’s the primary context in which any discussion about how the pandemic has affected the United States should occur. Secondarily, we should consider how the number of new coronavirus infections correlates to that figure. At the moment, nearly two people are dying of covid-19 each minute, a function of a massive surge in the number of new infections that began in mid-September.
The surge and the deaths are inextricable. For months, the number of new deaths on any given day has been about 1.8 percent of new cases several weeks prior. Allowing the virus to spread wildly means allowing more Americans to die.
In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, one of the architects of the decision to let the virus spread, former White House adviser Scott Atlas, blames the scale of the pandemic on the media. It’s the “politicization” of the virus, he argues, that has led to the dire outcomes we see, and that’s largely due to “media distortion.”
It’s hard to overstate both how dishonest Atlas’s argument is and how ironic it is that he should point the blame elsewhere. He makes false assertions about where states have been successful and suggests that mitigation efforts that weren’t 100 percent effective shouldn’t be used. He boasts that the effort to combat the spread of the virus was left to states — which is precisely the criticism aimed at President Trump’s administration. When Trump (and Atlas) undercut efforts to slow the spread of the virus, Trump supporters — including state leaders — picked up on that approach, contributing to the current spread.
At the end of March, Trump offered one of his only forceful endorsements of slowing the spread of the virus. Having been presented with research indicating that as many as 2.2 million Americans would die of the virus if no effort was taken to limit its spread, he endorsed stay-at-home measures aimed at preventing new infections. His team suggested that implementing such mitigation efforts would keep the death toll under 240,000, with the added benefit of preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed.
This was one of Atlas’s arguments, too: Let the virus spread but backstop hospitals to prevent them from being flooded. The government accomplished the first goal, at least.
So we’ve raced past the 240,000-death mark, passing 300,000 deaths this month.
It’s important to remember, too, how often Trump himself promised this wasn’t going to be the country’s future. As the virus was spreading without detection — in part thanks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s failure to develop a working test — Trump repeatedly downplayed how bad things would get. There were thousands of deaths around the world, he noted in early March, but less than a dozen in the United States. He compared the coronavirus to the seasonal flu and to the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, an event that had the politically useful characteristic of having occurred while Trump’s eventual opponent in the presidential election was vice president.
Over and over, Trump predicted a high-water mark for coronavirus deaths. Over and over, the country surged past his predictions. As the election approached, he began simply comparing the death toll to that 2.2-million-death figure he’d first introduced in March.
The United States will not reach 2.2 million coronavirus deaths over the course of the pandemic. We probably won’t reach 500,000, assuming that the national vaccination effort — the far-safer way to spread immunity — progresses without significant problems.
Right now, though, thousands of people are dying every day and tens of thousands more are on an inevitable path to the same result. More robust efforts to prevent new infections could have reduced these numbers, as robust efforts did elsewhere (contrary to Atlas’s theories). A consistent, forceful message from a president whose base is devoutly supportive of him would unquestionably have reshaped the virus’s spread. Had Trump embraced the expertise of government virologists, instead of a radiologist he saw on Fox News, it would have perhaps pushed the curve depicting the number of deaths each day back down instead of driving it higher.
This was the deadliest year in American history. Perhaps it would inevitably have been, given the size of the population (particularly the elderly population) and the emergence of covid-19. But it unquestionably didn’t have to be as deadly as it was.
A Florida taxi driver and his wife had seen enough conspiracy theories online to believe the virus was overblown, maybe even a hoax. So no masks for them. Then they got sick. She died. A college lecturer had trouble refilling her lupus drug after the president promoted it as a treatment for the new disease. A hospital nurse broke down when an ICU patient insisted his illness was nothing worse than the flu, oblivious to the silence in beds next door.
Lies infected America in 2020. The very worst were not just damaging, but deadly.
President Donald J. Trump fueled confusion and conspiracies from the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic. He embraced theories that COVID-19 accounted for only a small fraction of the thousands upon thousands of deaths. He undermined public health guidance for wearing masks and cast Dr. Anthony Fauci as an unreliable flip-flopper.
But the infodemic was not the work of a single person.
Anonymous bad actors offered up junk science. Online skeptics made bogus accusations that hospitals padded their coronavirus case numbers to generate bonus payments. Influential TV and radio opinion hosts told millions of viewers that social distancing was a joke and that states had all of the personal protective equipment they needed (when they didn’t).
It was a symphony of counter narrative, and Trump was the conductor, if not the composer. The message: The threat to your health was overhyped to hurt the political fortunes of the president.
Every year, PolitiFact editors review the year’s most inaccurate statements to elevate one as the Lie of the Year. The “award” goes to a statement, or a collection of claims, that prove to be of substantive consequence in undermining reality.
It has become harder and harder to choose when cynical pundits and politicians don’t pay much of a price for saying things that aren’t true. For the past month, unproven claims of massive election fraud have tested democratic institutions and certainly qualify as historic and dangerously bald-faced. Fortunately, the constitutional foundations that undergird American democracy are holding.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus has killed more than 300,000 in the United States, a crisis exacerbated by the reckless spread of falsehoods.
PolitiFact’s 2020 Lie of the Year: claims that deny, downplay or disinform about COVID-19.
‘I always wanted to play it down’
On Feb. 7, Trump leveled with book author Bob Woodward about the dangers of the new virus that was spreading across the world, originating in central China. He told the legendary reporter that the virus was airborne, tricky and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
Trump told the public something else. OnFeb. 26, the president appeared with his coronavirus task force in the crowded White House briefing room. A reporter asked if he was telling healthy Americans not to change their behavior.
“Wash your hands, stay clean. You don’t have to necessarily grab every handrail unless you have to,” he said, the room chuckling. “I mean, view this the same as the flu.”
Three weeks later, March 19, he acknowledged to Woodward: “To be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down. Because I don’t want to create a panic.”
His acolytes in politics and the media were on the same page. Rush Limbaugh told his audience of about 15 million on Feb. 24 that coronavirus was being weaponized against Trump when it was just “the common cold, folks.” That’s wrong — even in the early weeks, it was clear the virus had a higher fatality rate than the common cold, with worse potential side effects, too.
As the virus was spreading, so was the message to downplay it.
“There are lots of sources of misinformation, and there are lots of elected officials besides Trump that have not taken the virus seriously or promoted misinformation,” said Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College. “It’s not solely a Trump story — and it’s important to not take everyone else’s role out of the narrative.”
The skeptics cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data to claim that only 6% of COVID-19 deaths could actually be attributed to the virus. On Aug. 24, BlazeTV host Steve Deace amplified it on Facebook.
“Here’s the percentage of people who died OF or FROM Covid with no underlying comorbidity,” he said to his 120,000 followers. “According to CDC, that is just 6% of the deaths WITH Covid so far.”
That misrepresented the reality of coronavirus deaths. The CDC had always said people with underlying health problems — comorbidities — were most vulnerable if they caught COVID-19. The report was noting that 6% died even without being at obvious risk.
But for those skeptical of COVID-19, the narrative confirmed their beliefs. Facebook users copied and pasted language from influencers like Amiri King, who had 2.2 million Facebook followers before he was banned. The Gateway Pundit called it a “SHOCK REPORT.”
“I saw a statistic come out the other day, talking about only 6% of the people actually died from COVID, which is very interesting — that they died from other reasons,” Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Sept. 1.
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addressed the claim on “Good Morning America” the same day.
“The point that the CDC was trying to make was that a certain percentage of them had nothing else but just COVID,” he said. “That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19 — they did.”
False information moved between social media, Trump and TV, creating its own feedback loop.
“It’s an echo effect of sorts, where Donald Trump is certainly looking for information that resonates with his audiences and that supports his political objectives. And his audiences are looking to be amplified, so they’re incentivized to get him their information,” said Kate Starbird, an associate professor and misinformation expert at the University of Washington.Weakening the armor: misleading on masks
At the start of the pandemic, the CDC told healthy people not to wear masks, saying they were needed for health care providers on the frontlines. But on April 3 the agency changed its guidelines, saying every American should wear non-medical cloth masks in public.
Trump announced the CDC’s guidance, then gutted it.
“So it’s voluntary. You don’t have to do it. They suggested for a period of time, but this is voluntary,” Trump said at a press briefing. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”
Rather than an advance in best practices on coronavirus prevention, face masks turned into a dividing line between Trump’s political calculations and his decision-making as president. Americans didn’t see Trump wearing a mask until a July visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
In September, the CDC reported a correlation between people who went to bars and restaurants, where masks can’t consistently be worn, and positive COVID-19 test results. Bloggers and skeptical news outlets countered with a misleading report about masks.
On Oct. 13, the story landed on Fox News’ flagship show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” During the show, Carlson claimed “almost everyone — 85% — who got the coronavirus in July was wearing a mask.”
“So clearly (wearing a mask) doesn’t work the way they tell us it works,” Carlson said.
That’s wrong, and it misrepresented a small sample of people who tested positive. Public health officials and infectious disease experts have been consistent since April in saying that face masks are among the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But two days later, Trump repeated the 85% stat during a rally and at a town hall with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
“I tell people, wear masks,” he said at the town hall. “But just the other day, they came out with a statement that 85% of the people that wear masks catch it.”
The assault on hospitals
On March 24, registered nurse Melissa Steiner worked her first shift in the new COVID-19 ICU of her southeast Michigan hospital. After her 13-hour day caring for two critically ill patients on ventilators, she posted a tearful video.
“Honestly, guys, it felt like I was working in a war zone,” Steiner said. “(I was) completely isolated from my team members, limited resources, limited supplies, limited responses from physicians because they’re just as overwhelmed.”
“I’m already breaking, so for f—’s sake, people, please take this seriously. This is so bad.”
Steiner’s post was one of manyemotionalpleas offered by overwhelmed hospital workers last spring urging people to take the threat seriously. The denialists mounted a counter offensive.
On March 28, Todd Starnes, a conservative radio host and commentator, tweeted a video from outside Brooklyn Hospital Center. There were few people or cars in sight.
“This is the ‘war zone’ outside the hospital in my Brooklyn neighborhood,” Starnes said sarcastically. The video racked up more than 1.5 million views.
Starnes’ video was one of the first examples of #FilmYourHospital, a conspiratorial social media trend that pushed back on the idea that hospitals had been strained by a rapid influx of coronavirus patients.
Several internet personalities asked people to go out and shoot their own videos. The result: a series of user-generated clips taken outside hospitals, where the response to the pandemic was not easily seen. Over the course of a week, #FilmYourHospital videos were uploaded to YouTube and posted tens of thousands of times on Twitter and Facebook.
Nearly two weeks and more than 10,000 deaths later, Fox News featured a guest who opened a new misinformation assault on hospitals.
Dr. Scott Jensen, a Minnesota physician and Republican state senator, told Ingraham that, because hospitals were receiving more money for COVID-19 patients on Medicare — a result of a coronavirus stimulus bill — they were overcounting COVID-19 cases. He had no proof of fraud, but the cynical story took off.
Trump used the false report on the campaign trail to continue to minimize the death toll.
“Our doctors get more money if somebody dies from COVID,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Waterford, Mich., Oct. 30. “You know that, right? I mean, our doctors are very smart people. So what they do is they say, ‘I’m sorry, but, you know, everybody dies of COVID.’”
The real fake news: The Plandemic
The most viral disinformation of the pandemic was styled to look like it had the blessing of people Americans trust: scientists and doctors.
In a 26-minute video called “Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19,” a former scientist at the National Cancer Institute claimed that the virus was manipulated in a lab, hydroxychloroquine is effective against coronaviruses, and face masks make people sick.
Judy Mikovits’ conspiracies received more than 8 million views in May thanks in part to the online outrage machine — anti-vaccine activists, anti-lockdown groups and QAnon supporters — that push disinformation into the mainstream. The video was circulated in a coordinated effort to promote Mikovits’ book release.
A couple of months later, a similar effort propelled another video of fact-averse doctors to millions of people in only a few hours.
On July 27, Breitbart publisheda clipof a press conference hosted by a group called America’s Frontline Doctors in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Looking authoritative in white lab coats, these doctors discouraged mask wearing and falsely said there was already a cure in hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Trump, who had been talking up the drug since March and claimed to be taking it himself as a preventive measure in May, retweeted clips of the event before Twitter removed them as misinformation about COVID-19. He defended the “very respected doctors” in a July 28 press conference.
When Olga Lucia Torres, a lecturer at Columbia University, heard Trump touting the drug in March, she knew it didn’t bode well for her own prescription. Sure enough, the misinformation led to a run on hydroxychloroquine, creating a shortage for Americans like her who needed the drug for chronic conditions.
A lupus patient, she went to her local pharmacy to request a 90-day supply of the medication. But she was told they were only granting partial refills. It took her three weeks to get her medication through the mail.
“What about all the people who were silenced and just lost access to their staple medication because people ran to their doctors and begged to take it?” Torres said.No sickbed conversion
On Sept. 26, Trump hosted a Rose Garden ceremony to announce his nominee to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court. More than 150 people attended the event introducing Amy Coney Barrett. Few wore masks, and the chairs weren’t spaced out.
In the weeks after, more than two dozen people close to Trump and the White House became infected with COVID-19. Early Oct. 2, Trump announced his positive test.
Those hoping the experience and Trump’s successful treatment at Walter Reed might inform his view of the coronavirus were disappointed.
Trump snapped back into minimizing the threat during his first moments back at the White House. He yanked off his mask and recorded a video.
“Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it,” he said, describing experimental and out-of-reach therapies he received. “You’re going to beat it.”
In Trump’s telling, his hospitalization was not the product of poor judgment about large gatherings like the Rose Garden event, but the consequence of leading with bravery. Plus, now, he claimed, he was immune from the virus.
On the morning after he returned from Walter Reed, Trump tweeted a seasonal flu death count of 100,000 lives and added that COVID-19 was “far less lethal” for most populations. More false claims at odds with data — the U.S. average for flu deaths over the past decade is 36,000, and experts said COVID-19 is more deadly for each age group over 30.
When Trump left the hospital, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 was more than 200,000. Today it is more than 300,000. Meanwhile, this month the president has gone ahead with a series of indoor holiday parties.
The vaccine war
The vaccine disinformation campaign started in the spring but is still underway.
In April, blogs and social media users falsely claimed Democrats and powerful figures like Bill Gates wanted to use microchips to track which Americans had been vaccinated for the coronavirus. Now, false claims are taking aim at vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and other companies.
A blogger claimed Pfizer’s head of research said the coronavirus vaccine could cause female infertility. That’s false.
An alternative health website wrote that the vaccine could cause an array of life-threatening side effects, and that the FDA knew about it. The list included all possible — not confirmed— side effects.
Social media users speculated that the federal government would force Americans to receive the vaccine. Neither Trump nor President-elect Joe Biden has advocated for that, and the federal government doesn’t have the power to mandate vaccines, anyway.
As is often the case with disinformation, the strategy is to deliver it with a charade of certainty.
“People are anxious and scared right now,” said Dr. Seema Yasmin, director of research and education programs at the Stanford Health Communication Initiative. “They’re looking for a whole picture.”
Most polls have shown far from universal acceptance of vaccines, with only 50% to 70% of respondents willing to take the vaccine. Black and Hispanic Americans are even less likely to take it so far.
Meanwhile, the future course of the coronavirus in the U.S. depends on whether Americans take public health guidance to heart. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projected that, without mask mandates or a rapid vaccine rollout, the death toll could rise to more than 500,000 by April 2021.
“How can we come to terms with all that when people are living in separate informational realities?” Starbird said.