Dr. Deborah Birx Has a Professional Duty to Resign — and to Explain to the Public Why She Is Doing So

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Dr. Deborah Birx continues to be complicit in the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic that she knows has been a catastrophic failure. She has a duty as a physician — and as a human being — to resign, acknowledge that failure, and publicly urge a reset of the response.

In her role as the president’s chief medical advisor and spokesperson on management of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Deborah Birx is misleading the public — her patients, so to speak — on the course of action necessary to bring the pandemic under control and save lives. She shares responsibility for thousands and thousands of unnecessary deaths by doing so.

As a physician, she has a duty to stop misleading the public. She can choose either to remain in her role and admit publicly that the current strategy of the federal government has failed and must be “reset” — effectively denouncing the president’s management of the pandemic — or she can resign and do the same. If she continues to prevaricate, as I believe she is doing, she will be professionally and personally complicit in causing a toll from COVID-19 now exceeding 1,000 deaths per day.

I emphasize that this has nothing to do with salvaging Birx’s reputation, which is none of my concern. It has everything to do with righting a wrong and helping wake up the American public to the reality that, unless there is a sea change in federal policy, staggering numbers of Americans are going to die needlessly.

The option of announcing publicly that, in effect, the Trump administration has badly mismanaged the pandemic while Birx continues to serve as the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force clearly is a fraught one. Given the baggage Birx already carries from her role on the task force, she would do herself and the rest of us a favor by resigning and explaining that she is doing so because of the failures of the Trump administration to which she contributed.

Birx’s statements on Sunday during an interview by Dana Bash on CNN were the final straw. They were proof positive that Birx is all in on defending the status quo when it comes to the federal response despite mounting pressure to dramatically reset that response — in other words, start over.

The consensus of epidemiologists and other public health experts is that the pandemic is raging out of control and that the policies for managing it have failed and must be changed. The reports are beginning to roll in. Typical of the statements being made is this from a recent report by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security:

“Unlike many countries in the world, the United States is not currently on course to get control of this epidemic. It is time to reset.”

The central recommendations by these experts are that the federal government take charge of implementing a comprehensive national testing strategy and play a much stronger role in shaping policy, including effecting a shut-down of the economy to stop the rampant spread of the virus. Birx went into spin mode when Bash tried to get her to respond to the idea of a reset.

Instead of answering the question directly, Birx described how public health battles like the one at hand are fought in the trenches at the local and state level. As true as that may be, she ignored the broader point: The country needs a unified response guided by the federal government, and only the federal government has the legal, logistical, and financial resources to perform critical tasks like standing up a national program of testing and contact tracing so that carriers of the disease can be identified and isolated.

State and local officials have been abandoned and left to their own devices — which in some cases has resulted in mismanagement on a par with that of the Trump administration. Birx showing up every now and then in state capitals to offer moral support is no help.

Birx is a capable physician and scientist, and I am sure that she knows better. Consequently, the conclusion that she is deliberately misleading the American people on what needs to be done to bring the pandemic under control is inescapable.

The disastrous missteps of the Trump administration have been well-documented. Among them was the decision by Trump in April to proclaim victory over the pandemic and move on, turning “clean up” operations over to the individual states as he pressed them to reopen their economies and return to “normal.”

We now know that the decision was based in part on the mistaken belief that the pandemic primarily would mainly affect “blue” states and therefore cause little political damage to Trump. Trump was led to believe that if the decision backfired the blame would fall on blue state governors, not on Trump — or at least that was the plan.

Trump cannot and will not admit a mistake, and he will not reverse course now. He will allow the pandemic to run its course, which means up to 90,000 more deaths by the election.

I posted a piece to my blog in April trying to figure out why Birx was so fawning in her relationship to Trump. Looking back at the post, much of it was idle conjecture, but the central theme as quoted below is a valid now as it was in April:

“Dr. Birx is allowing herself to be used by Trump and in my opinion, despite what she may believe, she is helping to endanger lives. She is lending credibility to Trump’s leadership of the pandemic response, and that troubles me for a particular reason right now: Her tacit support of Trump’s self-serving refusal to embrace the idea that an expanded regime of testing must be implemented before society can safely be reopened.”

Birx was part of a devilish scheme, if only by association. Society was being reopened without the necessary safeguards in place because Trump thought he could take credit for restarting the economy without the risk of getting the blame if things went badly. Birx lent her professional credibility to a presidential decision that will live in infamy.

Birx certainly is not the only professional involved in the federal response who merits criticism. There were failures by the CDC for which Dr. Robert Redfield bears responsibility, and failures by the FDA that fall on the shoulders of Dr. Stephen Hahn.

Both of them, however, were pushed to the background early in the pandemic and seem to have played little personal role in guiding policy. Moreover, they both run large and important agencies.

Birx’s sole responsibility is serving in an advisory capacity, and her only value lies in the quality of her advice. By the beginning of April, she had emerged as the president’s principal adviser on management of the pandemic. There certainly can be no argument that the federal response will suffer if she goes.

It is time for any policy advisor to leave if he or she consistently gives bad advice, or consistently gives good advice that the person being advised never heeds. The bottom line is that the adviser is rendered useless in both situations. Seen in the best light, Birx has been rendered useless; seen in the worst, she has been complicit in some absolutely horrible and deadly decisions.

Some measure of redemption

Birx’s reputation is in tatters. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said over the weekend that she has “lost confidence” in her, not a good sign by any measure.

Birx’s road trips to various states in recent weeks to try to persuade governors to enforce mask requirements and other measures to contain outbreaks have made a pathetic figure out of her. The day after she left Tennessee after making such a pitch, Tennessee governor Bill Lee said he would not implement her recommendations. Did Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the coronavirus task force, back her play by denouncing Lee? LOL.

Birx came to her job in the White House well-respected and well-liked. I am sure that this is not the way she wanted to end a long and distinguished career of public service.

She has a brief window of opportunity for some measure of redemption. She should resign, admit her role in the failed federal response, and urge the administration and Americans to embrace the idea of resetting federal policy. That way she can end her career by trying to save lives rather than defending a federal response that most definitely has not.

Retired lawyer, former prosecutor, former social worker, Army vet — former lots of things. Commentary published in Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.

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