Deborah Birx, the White House COVID-19 task force coordinator, speaks after meeting with Gov. Tom Wolf Thursday Sept. 3, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
Imagine what might have happened if President Franklin Roosevelt hadn’t listened to the advice of his top World War II generals such as Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas McArthur and George Marshall.
Well, that’s what President Donald Trump is doing in the country’s battle against COVID-19.
It was on full display in Pennsylvania last week. And it was driven home again this week with bombshell revelations, many of them caught on tape, in a new book about the 45th president.
Let’s start with the Keystone State first, which Trump needs to win if he’s to have any hope of capturing a second term.
During a rally in Westmoreland County last week, Trump criticized Gov. Tom Wolf for his restrictions due to COVID-19.
“Your governor has you in a shutdown. And almost all states are open,” Trump said. “You have to open the Commonwealth.”
However, earlier in the day, Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, credited Wolf for doing a remarkable job in lowering COVID-19 cases.
Birx told PennLive that, “I never give anyone an A, but I think they’re very close to a B-plus, A-minus range, a really terrific job.”
According to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, Birx told a group of reporters that Pennsylvania health officials in the March and April time frame worked diligently to decrease the number of cases.
She added that their diligence continued over the summer when cases spiked again, particularly in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
Before talking to the press Thursday afternoon, Birx, 64, a 1973 graduate of Carlisle High School, met with Gov. Wolf to discuss the pandemic.
Wolf has been second-guessed and fiercely pressured by legislative Republicans for much of the last six months for his actions to fight and contain the coronavirus.
But Birx said that Wolf’s restrictions on indoor dining, nightlife and private gatherings, and continued mask use were needed to keep cases low.
She also asked Pennsylvanians to continue wearing masks and not gather in crowds of more than ten.
However, during that speech at the Latrobe Regional Airport, people were crowded together in an airport hangar, and only a few wore masks.
Trump even mocked Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for wearing a mask.
“Did you ever see a man who likes a mask as much as him?” he asked, proclaiming that “it gives him a feeling of security If I were a psychiatrist, right, you know I’d say, ‘This guy’s got some big issues.’ Hanging down. Hanging down,” he said.
So, what’s going on? Well, Birx, who has had a roller-coaster relationship with Trump, appears to be on the outs with the president along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease official.
Trump was irritated by Fauci, who often contradicted his comments.
At one point, Trump questioned during a press briefing why Fauci’s approval ratings were so much higher than his.
Birx was more diplomatic than Fauci in opposing Trump but was criticized by some, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for appearing to appease the president.
However, Birx irked Trump during a CNN appearance in August, telling Dana Bash on the “State of the Union” show that the pandemic had reached a new phase.
“What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread. It’s into the rural as equal urban areas,” she said, suggesting that some Americans in multi-generational families should start wearing masks inside their homes.
Trump, in a tweet at the time, criticized Birx for her comments.
“So Crazy Nancy Pelosi said horrible things about Dr. Deborah Birx, going after her because she was too positive on the very good job we are doing on combating the China Virus, including Vaccines & Therapeutics. In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!” tweeted Trump.
The relationship between Trump and Birx deteriorated after that. The president recently brought Scott Atlas, a neurologist and fellow at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, onboard as a pandemic adviser.
Atlas, who does not have a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology, has reportedly clashed repeatedly with Fauci and Birx over the administration’s pandemic response. Atlas has expanded his influence inside the White House by advocating policies that appeal to Trump’s desire to move past the pandemic and get the economy going,
Atlas reportedly advocates the U.S. adopting Sweeden as a model. It did not impose lockdown orders or close most schools and businesses. Instead, Sweden recommended social distancing measures and masks, while keeping bars and restaurants open with restrictions.
Public health officials and infectious-disease experts have heavily criticized Sweden’s handling of the pandemic as reckless. They note that its infection and death rates are among the world’s highest. The country also hasn’t escaped deep economic problems resulting from COVID-19.
But Sweden’s approach has gained support among some conservatives who argue that this country’s lockdowns and business closures are crushing the economy and infringing on people’s liberties.
And this week, veteran journalist Bob Woodward blew the White House’s coronavirus policy wide open, revealing that Trump knew months in advance about the deadly threat the virus posed, but decided to intentionally downplay the danger, a move that potentially cost tens of thousands of American lives.
Meanwhile, with the Nov. 3 presidential election looming — and underway in those states that have, or will soon, send out mail-in ballots, there’s concern that the Trump administration could force the release of a vaccine before it’s thoroughly tested and proven safe.
However, Birx recently said that something like that couldn’t happen.
“The determination on a coronavirus vaccine will be made by an independent board that’s not part of the federal government,” Birx said.
All we can do at this point is hope Birx is right.
Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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