Key Words: Vast majority of U.S. COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented, Birx says

United States

The vast majority of America’s nearly 550,000 coronavirus deaths could have been prevented if the Trump administration had acted quickly and decisively, the former coordinator of the White House pandemic task force now says.

In an interview with CNN, Dr. Deborah Birx said there was no excuse for the excess deaths.

“I look at it this way. The first time we have an excuse. There were about a hundred thousand deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”

— Dr. Deborah Birx

Birx is among six top public-health officials who assessed the U.S. response to COVID-19 over the past year in a CNN documentary special, “Covid War: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out,” that aired Sunday night.

Birx said the Trump administration acted too slowly then failed to quickly learn lessons as the first wave of infections hit last spring, and that stronger social-distancing guidelines and shutdown regulations could have made a major difference. Then-President Donald Trump was repeatedly criticized for downplaying the risk of COVID-19, making false claims about the virus, and focusing on the economy at the expense of public health.

“The majority of people in the [Trump] White House did not take this seriously,” Birx told CNN.

Last May, a Columbia University study estimated that up to 84% of deaths could have been prevented if the country had locked down just two weeks sooner. Earlier this month, Dr. Bob Wachter, chief of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, noted that San Francisco — which was one of the first U.S. cities to shut down — has suffered significantly fewer deaths than other cities, and that “If U.S. had SF’s per capita death rate, we would have suffered 162,000 deaths, instead of 526,000.”

In the CNN documentary, Birx also said she received a “very uncomfortable” phone call from Trump last August after she publicly warned that COVID-19 had become “extraordinarily widespread”  in the U.S., while Trump was still predicting the virus would just “go away.”

“Everybody in the White House was upset with that interview and the clarity that I brought about the epidemic,” Birx told CNN. “I got called by the president. It was very uncomfortable, very direct and very difficult to hear.”

She also said the White House blocked her from speaking to national TV audiences. “Clearly someone was blocking me from doing it,” she told CNN. “[Trump] felt very strongly that I misrepresented the pandemic in the United States, that I made it out to be much worse than it is. I feel like I didn’t even make it out as bad as it was.”

But Birx’s role in the government response was also criticized. “This happened on her watch…this was her job,” Jonathan Reiner of George Washington University told CNN on Saturday, adding that she had “a duty to stand up and speak up.”

In January, Birx expressed her frustration of working in the White House, telling CBS News that Trump was fed a “parallel data stream” of incomplete and misleading information that undermined the administration’s pandemic response.

Birx announced her retirement in December and recently joined the George W. Bush Institute in Texas as a senior fellow.

As of late Sunday, the U.S. had registered 30.2 million coronavirus cases and more than 549,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.