On Tuesday, Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx announced that she will end decades of government service after the Biden transition is completed. The move comes after controversy over how she spent her Thanksgiving and articles suggesting that the incoming administration was uncertain about whether to retain her. Birx was a widely respected public health official until taking over the coronavirus response, which has left her associated with the misinformation provided by Trump and many other members of his administration.
Birx’s government career started in the 1980s, when she was in the Army and Army Reserve, ultimately reaching the rank of colonel. During this time, she frequently worked at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center but also spent time in the lab of Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health. But much of her reputation is based on her work fighting AIDS, first at the CDC, and later as the US Global AIDS coordinator, where her work was widely praised.
That reputation earned her a prominent place in the US’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Trump naming her the Coronavirus Response coordinator and giving her an influential place on the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force. This, however, ultimately placed her in an untenable position, as Trump himself was a frequent source of misinformation about the pandemic, and much of the White House staff frequently ignored public health guidance originating elsewhere in the government. Birx was left with what turned out to be an impossible task: maintain her job and influence by not publicly contradicting Trump’s misstatements and policies while attempting to ensure that the public got quality information.
Her failure to effectively push back on misinformation severely undercut her credibility with the medical and public health communities. And, in Scott Atlas, Trump eventually found someone who embraced both the misinformation and misguided policies. As a result, despite burning her credibility, Birx ended up sidelined by the White House.
Her service over this time was also notable for a conflict with her former agency, the CDC, over the collection of public health data during the pandemic. Birx shifted the responsibility for collecting data on hospital capacities from the CDC to its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. The move created ill-will within the CDC and kept the data from being more widely available until some of it leaked.
More recently, Birx fielded criticism for traveling to a family home over Thanksgiving. While Birx said that everyone at the home was already part of the group she was isolating with, the move seemed to go against public health advice issued by the CDC.
The incoming Biden administration obviously doesn’t view service with Trump as disqualifying, as he quickly embraced Anthony Fauci and offered him a role as a health adviser. And, earlier this month, there were indications that Birx was interested in continuing to address the pandemic from within the new administration. But those indications were quickly followed by reports that the history described above left many in Biden’s planning circle wary of welcoming Birx, viewing her credibility as severely compromised.
In response, Birx has apparently decided not to push matters and announced she would retire after helping get the incoming administration up to speed. The move will bring an end to a long and distinguished career but will hopefully allow the Biden administration to manage the pandemic without defending the response of the previous one.