The White House is counting on a retired Army colonel and former Obama appointee to help lead the administration’s response to the coronavirus as the outbreak spreads across the country and claims more lives.
Former colleagues of Dr. Deborah Birx, who recently served as the State Department’s global AIDS coordinator, say President Trump and Vice President Pence have landed on someone with the qualifications to tackle the biggest public health crisis the nation has faced in years.
“She is somebody that knows how to manage the whole of the U.S. government to move it toward a particular goal. If the White House lets her do that, it could be exactly the kind of coordination that has been lacking up to this point,” said Matthew Kavanaugh, who directs Georgetown’s Global Health Policy and Governance Initiative and knows Birx from his years working on global HIV policy.
“What we’ve seen so far is a really singular focus on keeping coronavirus out of the United States and I think we can say that that was not effective,” Kavanaugh said. “Now, the real test is: Will she be able to convince the White House to really mobilize the resources and the people and the political will and the communications to get the U.S. government as a whole oriented toward halting the virus’ spread and treating the sick?”
Birx was tapped to coordinate the White House’s coronavirus response last Thursday. She arrived in Washington from South Africa on Sunday evening, and the following day she was taking questions from reporters at a televised White House briefing.
“Everybody took great care of me. I had computer and phone in record time. It really shows the level of efficiency and expertise here to get moving quickly,” she said during Monday’s briefing.
In a sign that she knows how best to blend in at the Trump White House, Birx was quick to praise the president’s early actions to restrict travel from certain countries to prevent the further spread of the virus.
“It’s clear that the early work of the president, both with travel restrictions and the ability to quarantine, has bought us the time and space to have this task force be very effective,” she added on Monday.
Birx is highly regarded among public health experts, government officials and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, but was little known to the general public before Pence tapped her for the task force coordinator role.
At her confirmation hearing in 2014 for the State Department position, the longtime Maryland resident was introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) as a “model Marylander” and “trailblazer.”
While her expertise is in HIV/AIDS, Birx brings decades of experience in the medical field that includes working with the military and serving under Republican and Democratic administrations.
Much of her early medical career was spent as a doctor at Walter Reed, where she researched HIV/AIDS vaccines. She played a leading role in an Army vaccine clinical trial, which took place in Thailand in the early 2000s.
In 2005, she became head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Division of Global HIV/AIDS.
Ten days ago, she stepped into her highest-profile role and has become an increasingly visible presence in the White House’s messaging efforts. That presence has helped bolster confidence in an administration that has issued erroneous or misleading statements at a time when health experts say transparency and accuracy is critical to saving lives.
Birx has delivered remarks all X of the White House coronavirus press briefings this week; she attended meetings with airline executives and lab CEOs; and traveled with Pence to Minnesota and Washington state for meetings with local leaders.
“She will be my right arm in this effort, as the president has tasked me to lead the White House response to the coronavirus,” Pence told reporters Monday evening.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar described Birx as “a longtime colleague and friend” in a statement to The Hill.
“I have had the chance to work with Ambassador Birx at the World Health Organization and in other settings,” Azar said. “I am immensely pleased that President Trump and Vice President Pence have added her to our team of diplomatic and public health experts — which is truly a team without parallel anywhere in the world.”
While Birx has earned widespread recognition for her work on HIV/AIDS, some former government officials said that background was not completely analogous to tackling the coronavirus.
One former State Department official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, worked with Birx and praised her, but questioned why the Trump administration didn’t pick someone who dealt with the 2014 Ebola outbreak if they were considering Obama appointees. Trump at the time was publicly critical of Obama’s response to Ebola, often chiding the former president on Twitter.
Others have been skeptical that tapping Birx to coordinate the White House response to coronavirus would be enough of a counterweight to Trump’s tendency to offer contradictory information, like when he suggested Wednesday night on Fox News that coronavirus patients could still go to work.
“There’s still confusion around who’s in charge. There’s confusion and dissonance in the messaging between the president and the vice president on one level and the public health folks,” said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller pushed back on that assessment.
“There’s no confusion,” Miller told The Hill in an email. “Vice President Pence is leading the task force and Dr. Birx reports the Vice President. This was stated in the first task force meeting Dr. Birx attended and is wholly clear within the federal government.”
The administration came under criticism after Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the task force, canceled several media appearances to discuss the coronavirus. He later said the cancelations were to allow more time to get on the same wavelength as Pence’s office.
One source close to the White House disputed the notion that Pence’s office was trying to micromanage messaging across the administration.
“He has been coordinating, not micromanaging,” the person said of Pence.
But even as Birx, Fauci and other health officials have gone on camera to disseminate information, they have had to contend with Trump’s desire to be at the center of attention and offer his take on the situation.
The president did not appear to grasp the nuances of prepping a coronavirus vaccine during a meeting with pharmaceutical executives on Tuesday, and his Twitter feed has been peppered with barbs at Democratic rivals and the media over coverage of the virus.
“Giving [Birx] a platform and an authority to speak will be very good,” Morrison said, stressing the importance of “open communications and access for the media to those that can speak competently to the [CDC] guidance.”
“It’s an open question as to whether the American public has sufficient trust and confidence in this White House,” he added.