House speaker Nancy Pelosi escalated an attack on Dr Deborah Birx, a senior scientist on Donald Trump’s coronavirus taskforce, in television comments on Sunday as Birx defended the administration’s handling of the pandemic.
Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, was asked on ABC’s This Week whether she has confidence in Birx, a renowned public health expert who has frequently appeared alongside Trump in briefings on the virus.
“I think the president has been spreading disinformation about the virus and she is his appointee so, I don’t have confidence there, no,” Pelosi told ABC. However Pelosi praised another scientist on Trump’s task force, Dr Anthony Fauci.
Pelosi’s comments came as Birx also made an appearance of her own on cable television, and warned that widespread coronavirus infections in urban and rural America mark a “new phase” for the pandemic in the US, as she doubled down on calls to wear face masks and observe social distancing measures.
“What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread,” she said.
The United States has the world’s biggest number of cases at 4.6m, or one-quarter of the total, and 154,361 deaths. Birx said mitigation efforts across the west and the south are beginning to work but warned that people need to take the virus seriously and employ significant safety precautions when cases first begin to tick up.
Pelosi’s comments built on a report last week that she criticized Birx to Republican counterparts negotiating a new coronavirus relief package.
“Deborah Birx is the worst. Wow, what horrible hands you’re in,” Pelosi said, according to Politico.
Birx, an infectious disease expert specializing in HIV/Aids, was accused in a New York Times story last month of providing internal support and scientific cover for the White House’s unrealistic view of how well its virus response was going.
“She was a constant source of upbeat news for the president and his aides, walking the halls with charts emphasizing that outbreaks were gradually easing,” the Times reported, describing “a critical period beginning in mid-April”.
Birx refuted that characterization on Sunday.
“This was not a pollyannish view,” Birx told CNN’s State of the Union of the advice she gave the president. “I’ve never been called pollyannish, or non-scientific, or non-data driven. I will stake my 40-year career on those fundamental principles of using data to implement better programs and save lives.”
Birx has come under fire for what critics regard as excessive hesitancy in her public statements to knock down misleading information about the coronavirus and its spread, much of which has been peddled by Trump himself.
Birx has also participated in two of the most infamous public moments of Trump spreading misleading information about the virus. In March she helped Trump tout a nonexistent Google site to coordinate Covid-19 testing. And in April she sat in the White House briefing room as the president announced that she was going to test a treatment involving “light inside of the body”.
“I said, supposing you brought the light inside of the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way,” Trump said, speaking directly to Birx. “And I think you said you’re going to test that, too.”
Birx did not speak up to contradict him. Trump’s daily briefings on the virus were abruptly canceled after the outing, but were revived again last month.
In her Sunday television appearance, Birx did contradict Trump, however, breaking with his insistence that schools reopen in the fall. She said she agreed with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that school districts with a test positivity rate of 5% for Covid-19 should not hold in-person classes.
“If you have high case load and active community spread, just like we’re asking people not to go to bars, not to have house parties, not to have large spreading events, we’re asking people to distance learn at this moment so we can get this epidemic under control,” Birx said on CNN.
The debate, in any case, is academic. Birx did not mention that the country does not have enough testing with tight enough turnaround to get an accurate read on Covid-19 prevalence in most school districts, making the federal guidelines moot.
The official in charge of that failure, testing czar Adm Brett Giroir, declined on Sunday to call for a national mandate for wearing facial masks in public, explaining that such a mandate could backfire.
“You really need to have mask-wearing at a very high degree,” Giroir said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “There’s a debate whether a mandate is an affirmative thing.
“The public health message is, we’ve got to have mask-wearing.”