WASHINGTON — Since July, Dr. Deborah Birx has logged thousands of miles, mostly by rental car, in order to gather ground-level reports on the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and infected millions more.
As President Donald Trump continues to publicly contradict many of his administration’s top experts on everything from vaccine timelines to the wearing of masks — all while holding large campaign rallies — Birx’s trips have a more practical purpose, as well: to ensure the public doesn’t get complacent about the virus.
Visiting more than 25 states in her capacity as the White House task force response coordinator, Birx has paid particular attention to the spread of Covid-19 on college campuses, as the president continues to falsely claim that the virus affects “virtually nobody” who is young.
Since March, Birx has been a consistent voice of caution, typically appearing at the president’s side in briefings to deliver stark warnings of what might happen if the public doesn’t heed safety guidelines.
But while she was a near-constant presence in task force news conferences in the early days, much of Birx’s critical work is now taking place outside the White House grounds, marking a shift in strategy.
That has left space for a new medical expert to take on a more public-facing role at the president’s side: Dr. Scott Atlas, whose views more closely align with that of Trump on the pandemic. With Atlas working out of the West Wing and appearing more often at briefings, Birx has focused on traversing the nation’s hot spots, reporting back on key lessons and concerning trends.
The White House has pushed back strongly at the suggestion that Birx has been sidelined, with an official stressing her recent absence from Washington is an asset in combating the virus at a hyperlocal level.
“All of the medical experts in the Administration are working together around the clock to carry out the president's number one priority: protecting the health and safety of the American people and defeating this virus from China,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “President Trump relies on the advice and counsel of all of his top health officials every day and any suggestion that their role is being diminished is just false.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, another key member of the task force and a leading infectious disease expert, continues his work with the team and does frequent media interviews but rarely appears with the president these days.
Birx’s messaging, which almost always includes specific advice for millennials and younger generations who may not be taking the virus seriously enough, has often been at odds with Trump’s own words and recommendations.
“Tens of thousands of lives will be saved if we wear masks and we don’t have parties in our backyards,” Birx said last month in Little Rock, Arkansas. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on how useful masks may be.
Throughout her travels, the global health expert has always stressed the importance of masks, modeling the behavior with her own peach-colored ones and even sporting unique patterns she’s picked up on the road.
Driving around the University of Alabama earlier this month, Birx told students she was impressed with the women on campus who were wearing them but expressed alarm at the men who were not.
She said her team “saw lot of women wearing masks, but not all the men of Alabama wearing masks, so if I could just remind the men of Alabama: you get this disease just as much as anyone else.”
Birx prefers rental cars as a mode of transportation over commercial air travel because it allows her to see more of the country and observe firsthand how Americans are responding to the health crisis, according to a person close to her.
At the University of Tennessee, she admonished young people who aren’t following state and county guidelines by gathering in large groups and holding parties, stating plainly: “To every student that’s not following those rules: what you’re creating is superspreader events.”
Her warnings on this have been consistent, emphasizing that the majority of community spread is stemming from “backyard parties, birthday parties, weddings, socials, thinking it’s just the neighbors or just my family from across the state.”
Birx has been to more than a dozen universities across the Midwest and the South this month, notably traveling to some states that have seen recent spikes of coronavirus cases.
She was tapped to take on a significant leadership role on the coronavirus task force in March and, for the first few months of the pandemic, she was a fixture at Covid-19 briefings.
For the most part, the president has repeatedly praised her as a “fantastic person,” saying he has “a lot of respect for” her work and expertise. But in August, after the health expert went on a Sunday political program and called the virus “extraordinarily widespread,” Trump tweeted she “took the bait” and implied it was “pathetic!”
Birx maintains her relationship with the president is solid and frequently cites instances in which she has told him her unvarnished opinion.
“I am not going to second-guess what the president has done and not done,” she said last week in Lexington, Kentucky. “It’s his job and his determination how he talks to the American people.”
After veteran journalist Bob Woodward reported that Trump had told him in a taped conversation that he purposefully “downplayed” the virus for months, Birx came out and clearly stated she had not done so.
“I have never downplayed the virus,” she said during the same appearance in Kentucky.
She has often had to walk a fine line, however, when confronted with the president’s own statements or actions that contradict the very guidance his administration and top officials were offering to the public.
Birx has also had to defend herself when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she didn’t have confidence in her role because of how closely Birx works alongside the president. “I have never been called Pollyannish, or nonscientific, or nondata driven,” she said. “And I will stake my 40-year career on those fundamental principles of utilizing data to really implement better programs to save more lives.”
When she’s not doing road trips, Birx occasionally travels with Vice President Mike Pence to receive briefings in states experiencing a surge in infections.
On a July trip to Dallas, she flew on Air Force Two to attend a briefing at a hospital with the governor and other task force members. Before that event, Pence spoke at a megachurch where thousands were gathered inside, socially distanced but with inconsistent mask-wearing from a 100-person choir that sang throughout the service.
Birx did not attend the indoor gathering, opting to go ahead to the health center first.