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Virus Notebook

Deborah Birx testifies that Trump officials asked her to change COVID-19 guidance in 2020

Dr. Deborah Birx, former President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 response coordinator, is sworn in before testifying to the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis in Washington on Thursday, June 23, 2022. Birx previously told the committee investigating the federal pandemic response that Trump White House officials asked her to change or delete parts of the weekly guidance she sent state and local health officials, in what she described as a consistent effort to stifle information as virus cases surged in the second half of 2020.JASON ANDREW/NYT

Dr. Deborah L. Birx, former President Donald Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator, told a congressional committee investigating the federal pandemic response that Trump White House officials asked her to change or delete parts of the weekly guidance she sent state and local health officials, in what she described as a consistent effort to stifle information as virus cases surged in the second half of 2020.

Birx, who publicly testified to the panel Thursday morning, also told the committee that Trump White House officials withheld the reports from states during a winter outbreak and refused to publicly release the documents, which featured data on the virus’ spread and recommendations for how to contain it.

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Her account of White House interference came in a multiday interview the committee conducted in October 2021, which was released on Thursday with a set of emails Birx sent to colleagues in 2020 warning of the influence of a new White House pandemic adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, who she said downplayed the threat of the virus. The emails provide fresh insight into how Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, grappled with what Birx called the misinformation spread by Atlas.

The push to downplay the threat was so pervasive, Birx told committee investigators, that she developed techniques to avoid attention from White House officials who might have objected to her public health recommendations. In reports she prepared for local health officials, she said, she would sometimes put ideas at the ends of sentences so that colleagues skimming the text would not notice them.

In her testimony on Thursday, she offered similarly withering assessments of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, suggesting that officials in 2020 had mistakenly viewed the coronavirus as akin to the flu even after seeing high COVID-19 death rates in Asia and Europe. That, she said, had caused a “false sense of security in America” as well as a “sense among the American people that this was not going to be a serious pandemic.”

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Not using “concise, consistent communication,” she added, “resulted in inaction early on, I think across our agencies.”

And those at fault, she said, were not “just the president.”

“Many of our leaders were using words like, ‘We could contain,’” she continued. “And you cannot contain a virus that cannot be seen. And it wasn’t being seen because we weren’t testing.”

Birx became a controversial figure during her time in the Trump White House. A respected AIDS researcher, she was plucked from her position running the government’s program to combat the international HIV epidemic to coordinate the federal COVID response.

But her credibility came into question when she failed to correct Trump’s unscientific musings about the coronavirus and praised him on television as being “attentive to the scientific literature.” She was also criticized for bolstering White House messaging in the early months of the coronavirus outbreak that the pandemic was easing.

Yet as outbreaks continued that year, Trump and some senior advisers grew increasingly impatient with Birx and her public health colleagues, who were insistent on mitigation efforts. Searching for a contrarian presence, the White House hired Atlas, who functioned as a rival to Birx.

“They believed the counterfactual points that were never supported by data from Dr. Atlas,” she said in Thursday’s hearing.

In one email obtained by the committee, dated Aug. 11, 2020, Birx told Fauci and other colleagues about what she called a “very dangerous” Oval Office meeting with Trump. In that session, she said, Atlas had called masks “overrated and not needed,” and had argued against testing for the virus, saying it could hurt Trump politically.

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NEW YORK TIMES


Publix grocery stores won’t offer under-5 COVID-19 vaccines

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida-based Publix grocery store chain is not offering the COVID-19 vaccine to children younger than 5 but has not explained its decision.

The supermarket chain with 1,288 stores in seven Southern states was instrumental in distributing the vaccine when it was initially released. Its website indicates it is currently offering the vaccine to adults and children 5 and older.

The company told the Tampa Bay Times that Publix stores won’t offer the vaccine to young children “at this time.” It did not explain the decision or return multiple messages or phone calls to The Associated Press on Thursday.

The company’s website shows it offers other vaccinations for babies as young as 6 months.

Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo has recommended against vaccinating healthy children, despite US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that recommend the vaccines for everyone 6 months and older.

Florida considers children with underlying conditions that predispose them to severe cases of COVID-19 as candidates for the jabs. Federal policies make no distinction between healthy individuals and those with underlying conditions. The CDC says the vaccines prevent hospitalizations and deaths, and the benefits outweigh any risks.

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Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said last week that the state was not preordering doses of the under-5 vaccine, making Florida the only state in the nation not to do so. Though medical providers and pediatricians can order vaccines directly from the federal government via a state online portal, the White House has said Florida’s failure to pre-order could delay delivery to medical providers in the state.

ASSOCIATED PRESS


Austria won’t proceed with COVID-19 vaccine mandate plans

BERLIN — Austria’s health minister announced Thursday that the country is scrapping a dormant coronavirus vaccine mandate, saying the measure risked polarizing society and could even lead to fewer people getting the shot.

The government announced plans last year requiring all people aged 18 and over to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the first country in Europe to do so. The law took effect in February but lawmakers suspended the mandate before police were due to enforce it in mid-March.

Health Minister Johannes Rauch said the rise of new virus variants had changed citizens’ perception of the effectiveness and necessity of a vaccination, even among those willing to get the shot.

This could deter them from voluntarily getting booster shots that will help curb the outbreak in the fall, he said.

“The vaccine mandate hinders some people who are generally willing to get the shot from taking the booster, the idea being: I’m not going to be told what to do,” said Rauch.

He said current hardships such as inflation and high energy prices, and fears surrounding the war in Ukraine, had contributed to tensions in society.

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“We need every millimeter of solidarity and cohesion to cope with the coming months and years,” said Rauch. “And the debate surrounding compulsory vaccination and the hardening of positions over this question tore open rifts and did away with that solidarity.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS


Macau closes all entertainment venues except for casinos amid a COVID-19 outbreak

Macau will keep its casinos open, while shutting other entertainment venues, as the world’s largest gambling hub tries to contain its worst ever COVID-19 outbreak.

Bars, nightclubs, cinemas, gyms, and hair salons were to close beginning from 5 p.m. local time on Thursday, and restaurants suspended dining-in services, according to a government mandate, which didn’t specify how long the curbs will last. Macau has already shut schools and public venues, and is conducting mass testing to weed out hidden chains of community transmission as the number of infections in this outbreak climbed to 110 from 71 a day earlier.

The outbreak is being driven by the omicron sub-variant BA.5, said health officials.

Casinos are not affected by the restrictions for now and the city hasn’t shut the venues since an unprecedented 15-day closure in February 2020. Authorities will only close individual casinos if they find a case in gaming spaces, Macau’s Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng said at a briefing Thursday, citing an agreement reached with operators following the 2020 shutdown.

BLOOMBERG