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Former White House COVID response chief: 'Our work was littered with failures'
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Former White House COVID response chief: 'Our work was littered with failures'

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WESTVILLE — Dr. Deborah Birx stressed the need for cooperation, a sense of community and continued research and learning in addressing this pandemic and future ones.

Birx, who served as White House coronavirus response coordinator, gave an overview of the pandemic from her insider’s perspective Sunday as part of the Purdue Northwest Sinai Forum speakers series.

Birx’s lecture, and the question-and-answer period afterward, showed she is still concerned about learning lessons from the response to the pandemic, both during the Trump administration and now in the Biden administration.

Deborah Birx's program "An Overview of the Pandemic from the Inside"

Dr. Deborah Birx presents her program "An Overview of the Pandemic from the Inside" at Sunday's Sinai Forum at Purdue University Northwest's Westville campus.

“I think I can read between the lines and realize how totally squelched you were in the previous administration,” one audience member remarked. He asked her about the “Clorox moment,” the time when she visibly flinched after President Donald Trump asked during a news conference about the efficacy of injecting disinfectants to treat COVID-19 patients.

“I knew in that moment we all lost complete credibility,” Birx said.

“I do realize there are a lot of people who thought I should have gotten up, run across the stage and tackled him,” she said.

Deborah Birx's program "An Overview of the Pandemic from the Inside"

Diane Eklov, of Detroit, Michigan, chats with Dr. Deborah Birx following her presentation "An Overview of the Pandemic from the Inside" at Sunday's Sinai Forum at Purdue University Northwest's Westville campus.

“I think that’s one of the most misunderstood moments that there was,” she said.

“I believe it’s a lot safer for Americans to be outside,” she said. A group of Department of Homeland Security scientists exploring the role sunlight has as a natural disinfectant in making playgrounds safer was ushered into the Oval Office right before a televised COVID-19 news briefing, and Trump asked them about using disinfectants on humans. Birx wasn’t part of that conversation.

“In my mind, I play that moment over and over again, and it was very uncomfortable to say the least,” Birx said.

Deborah Birx's program "An Overview of the Pandemic from the Inside"

Indiana State Senator Ed Charbonneau greets Dr. Deborah Birx Sunday at the Sinai Forum at Purdue University Northwest's Westville campus.

Another audience member asked if the federal Food and Drug Administration should have given emergency use authorization for vaccines much earlier.

“Our work was littered with failures,” she said.

“I was trying to get the companies to actually release the vaccines” sooner, using the “compassionate use” standard to release the 1.5 million doses of vaccines for nursing homes, she said. “Sometimes you have to be practical.”

“This self-editing of pushing the envelope to save lives, we see this a lot,” Birx added. “I just want to thank the FDA who really worked overtime” to approve the vaccines. The team worked weekends as well as long hours because of the urgency of this crisis.

A physician asked about the efficacy of masks in addressing the pandemic.

Deborah Birx's program "An Overview of the Pandemic from the Inside"

Dr. Deborah Birx presents her program "An Overview of the Pandemic from the Inside" at Sunday's Sinai Forum at Purdue University Northwest's Westville campus.

*Birx pointed to an October 2020 study by Japanese researchers that said cloth masks are 50 percent effective, surgical masks are 70 percent effective, N95 masks are more than 95 percent effective and KN95 masks are more than 90 percent effective in preventing the spread of the disease.

“We needed that information in January of 2020,” she said. That drives home the need to do more research on disease prevention and transmission risks, she said.

Birx doesn’t wear the blue paper masks that are so popular. “They have these little fibers that get in my nose and those get me sneezing and coughing,” she said. She can order KN95 masks online now.

“The bottom line on all of this is the mask has to fit. When you breathe in, the mask should collapse, because that means there is a seal,” she said.

Deborah Birx's program "An Overview of the Pandemic from the Inside"

Guests listen as Dr. Deborah Birx presents her program "An Overview of the Pandemic from the Inside" at Sunday's Sinai Forum at Purdue University Northwest's Westville campus.

She buys small KN95s for the tightest fit. “It really hurts your ears, but I’m really willing to do all of these things,” she said.

Unfortunately, the messaging from the highest level at the White House didn’t clearly endorse using masks. She was at O’Hare International Airport recently and saw the food courts packed with no one wearing masks.

“We have vaccinated individuals who believe they have become Superman” and aren’t wearing masks, she said. “Those of us who are vaccinated can also contribute to community spread because they are no longer wearing masks” and are carrying the disease without realizing it.

Testing needs to become routine to detect COVID-19 regardless of symptoms. “It’s still about protecting the most vulnerable who may not have an effective immune system.”

Part of the reaction to the pandemic is cultural.

“All of Asia got blindsided by SARS,” she said, so the people there knew how to react to this virus. “If you were in Asia, they reacted much better because they had muscle memory to SARS.”

“The entire population put on cloth masks,” she noted.

Birx said is important to understand the culture and who should be the messengers in each community. Doctors and nurses were most effective messengers at the local level, she said.

Tribal nations and university systems also deserve praise for their comprehensive response, she said. That’s because they both have a strong sense of community.

Asked about her regrets and proudest moments, Birx said she regrets not going out to the states sooner. “I had lost touch with my American civics, to be honest.” She spend so much time overseas, where policies at national level are followed by every clinic, that she didn’t realize that in the United States national policies don’t necessarily filter down to the state level.

Birx said she wished she could have persuaded states and regions to react sooner when positivity rates increased. “It’s like no one wanted to mitigate until they were convinced the hospitalization would start. But by the time the hospitalizations started, it was a tsunami,” she said.

“I think my proudest moment is just listening, because you all taught me so much,” Birx said. "We can have a different pathway forward” if we listen to each other, she added.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version. *Birx pointed to an October 2020 study by Japanese researchers that said cloth masks are 50 percent effective, surgical masks are 70 percent effective, N95 masks are more than 95 percent effective and KN95 masks are more than 90 percent effective in preventing the spread of the disease.

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