Democrats Defend Trump Officials' COVID-19 Response | Opinion

With more than one million reported COVID-19 deaths and enormous collateral damage to public health, education, and the economy, our pandemic response was a disaster. Yet some House Democrats are now defending the Trump administration officials responsible for initiating those misguided policies.

Two Trump-appointed officials—former CDC director Robert Redfield and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx—formally directed the federal response from the start of the pandemic through January 2021. They adopted lockdowns, including school and business closures, as the centerpiece of the national coronavirus response. In a recent report, Democrats on the Congressional Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis defended these Trump officials. In doing so, they reiterated the misunderstandings underpinning the Birx-Redfield-Fauci strategy.

The Trump officials made two fundamental mistakes. First, they failed to prioritize protecting older Americans from a disease that had an infection fatality rate more than a thousand times higher for the elderly than for the young, leading to many unnecessary deaths.

Unlike Ebola, but similar to influenza and previously circulating coronaviruses, it was never possible to suppress COVID-19 to achieve "zero COVID." Many countries tried, but not one succeeded. Lockdowns only prolonged the pandemic. Despite harsh government lockdowns, extensive contact tracing, and constant anxiety-inducing warnings, most Americans got infected. Inevitably so.

With their singular focus on COVID suppression, Birx, Redfield, and Anthony Fauci failed to implement measures to protect older, high-risk Americans. They praised governors who ordered hospitals to discharge COVID-infected patients to nursing homes, where they infected other residents. Excess staff rotation spread the virus both within and between nursing homes. Instead of implementing daily testing at nursing homes, Birx, Redfield, and Fauci used limited resources to test asymptomatic children and students. It was only when Dr. Scott Atlas arrived at the White House in July 2020 that the government made more tests available to nursing homes.

When enough people recover from COVID, the country reaches herd immunity. After that, the disease becomes endemic, like other coronaviruses that cause occasional colds. Since the Birx-Redfield-Fauci strategy led to mass infection and eventual herd immunity, it is curious that congressional Democrats now claim these Trump officials were opposed to a "herd immunity strategy." The truth, now obvious to all, is that all COVID strategies lead to herd immunity. That is how pandemics end.

Deborah Birx and Mike Pence
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on November 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. The White House held its first Coronavirus Task Force briefing in months as cases of COVID-19 are surging across the country ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Drs. Birx, Redfield, and Fauci also turned a blind eye to the enormous collateral damage caused by their policies: missed cancer screenings and treatment, worse cardiovascular disease care, fewer childhood vaccinations, and deteriorating mental health, to name a few examples. Instead of pointing out those failures in the report, the congressional Democrats disparage Dr. Atlas for his concern about them.

In their futile efforts to suppress the disease, these officials' worst failure was the strategy of school closures. Missing school causes enormous harm to kids, particularly poor and middle-class children. Research predicts they will live shorter, poorer, and less healthy lives as a consequence of the closures. Unfortunately, only a few states, such as Arkansas, Florida, and Wyoming, resisted the Birx-Redfield-Fauci school closures.

In August 2020, along with Prof. Joseph Ladapo then of UCLA and Prof. Cody Meissner of Tufts University, we visited the White House to argue for better protection of older Americans and for opening schools and universities. While we met with the president and the vice president, we were surprised that neither Birx, Redfield, nor Fauci were available to meet with us. From the subcommittee report, we now know that Birx offered "to go out of town or whatever gives the [White House] cover" to avoid meeting with us.

Why would the federal COVID coordinator not meet with scientists who have decades of public health and infectious disease experience? Why do congressional Democrats condone behavior that one may expect from junior high students? They should be encouraging frank discussions among scientists about a major public health crisis. As a lab scientist, Fauci was understandably unaware of long-established public health measures to protect the vulnerable, but he failed to ask around and learn from public health scientists.

Whether one approves or disapproves of Donald Trump, many view the response to the pandemic as his administration's biggest failure. This response was coordinated by the White House task force on the coronavirus, with Vice President Mike Pence as the chair and with Birx, Redfield, and Fauci as key members with medical backgrounds.

The verdict is in, and it is now obvious that they failed. With more focus on protecting the old while keeping schools, health care, and small businesses open, Republican Florida and Nebraska and social-democratic Scandinavia have less collateral damage without higher excess mortality.

Birx and Redfield failed to protect older Americans from COVID-19. They failed to protect us all, especially our children, from collateral lockdown damage. They failed to listen and learn from other scientists. In 2020 they misled many Americans, both Republicans and Democrats. Surprisingly, congressional Democrats are now the ones stepping in to defend these Trump appointees. They should instead embrace independent-minded scientists who favored focused protection instead of lockdowns.

Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD, is an epidemiologist and health economist. He is professor of medicine at Stanford University. Martin Kulldorff, PhD, is an epidemiologist and biostatistician specializing in infectious disease outbreaks and vaccine safety. He is a senior scholar at the Brownstone Institute, and a former professor of medicine at Harvard.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.