Dr. Deborah Birx’s rapport with President Donald Trump is “respectful in public and very clear in private” when it comes to discussions about the coronavirus, she said on ABC News’ “Powerhouse Politics” podcast Wednesday.
Birx faced some backlash following White House coronavirus task force briefings for not loudly correcting the president on claims he made about how to treat the virus, like using bleach or sunshine, but she told ABC News Political Director Rick Klein and Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl that her "interpretation of the epidemic" was “very clear” behind closed doors.
“I think no one really knows what I've done inside the White House,” she said. “That will all come to light because -- this data -- I write a daily report, so it's very clear, my interpretation of the epidemic.”
“I served in the military for 29 years and I've always been very respectful in public and very clear in private. And having come out of the military, our one rule is you're a soldier, and you follow command until it's an unlawful order. And I have to say, in my time in the White House, which is 10 months out of my 40 years in public service, I never received an unlawful order. And so I never had to break with that chain of command,” she added.
She said she and her team have also taken their messages to the press and to local government entities.
“I think you can talk to governors and mayors,” she added. “We've also been very clear with them in private. Then we also go out and do press and we try to be very clear to the people of their state. But I've often found it's really important, if you have something challenging to deliver, that you deliver that in private and you work very hard to use everything that you have to convince people of what needs to be done.”
Karl asked Birx if she intends to work with the Biden administration in some capacity once he takes office.
“I've been in touch with the transition teams to give them how I see the epidemic in the United States, to send them slides and data so that they understand what I'm seeing,” she said. “As a civil servant, I would go back to where I came from, I imagine, and it would be up to the Biden administration to decide if I could be any utility ... or not.”
Birx said she isn’t trying to get the vaccine just yet: She’s holding off until those in her age group with her comorbidities are next in line.
“I would love to get vaccinated, but I think I have to wait until it's my turn, by my age and my comorbidities,” she said.
Klein asked her about where politicians and local leaders fall in line.
“Particularly when we see that the acting defense secretary, who has only got the job for another month, the governor of West Virginia, are among those who've gotten the vaccine before almost anyone else in the country, is there a medical reason to see political leadership essentially jump the line, go first? Or is that kind of a system breakdown when something like that happens?” he asked.
“I think he wanted to demonstrate to every West Virginian that you need to get this vaccine and it's important,” Birx said of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice. “I consider myself a civil servant. So I consider myself in an everyday essential worker category. I do not want to jump the line" she added.
Still, she said she's "totally supportive of vaccination.”
“I understand how this vaccine was made. I understand the safety of the vaccine. And critically, I understand the depth of the efficacy of this vaccine. This is one of the most highly-effective vaccines we have in our infectious disease arsenal. And so that's why I'm very enthusiastic about the vaccine,” she added.
Birx says she estimates life will start to return to normal once the most vulnerable Americans receive the vaccine and it becomes available to other members of the population.
“I want to make it clear there's two very important sides to that equation. There is herd immunity, which would prevent community spread, and then there's absolute clarity on what people need, in an equity way, to prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and fatalities,” she said.
Birx said that by prioritizing essential workers and those in long-term care facilities, the most vulnerable Americans can be fully vaccinated by the beginning of March, at which point the country can begin moving toward herd immunity.
But before the country can reach that point, she said, Americans must get through the winter, which is why she is continuing her cross-country travels, which has taken her 25,000 miles to 43 states.
“We've been to 43 states, most of them more than two times, really in-depth communication with governors, mayors, community, our incredible hospital staff. And really trying to understand what people are seeing, and what needs to be done on the ground, and how we can be most supportive. And most importantly, what people are hearing when we're talking,” she said. “And that's been really quite important, because things are sometimes taken out of context. So we've been on the road since the end of June. I've learned a lot about the United States and our vastness and our different populations,” she said.
Karl asked Birx about a briefing where he sought to clarify discrepancies between Centers for Disease Control guidelines and recommendations coming from the coronavirus task force about testing asymptomatic individuals, saying her answer at the time misconstrued his question.
“You gave an answer that gave the implication that I was wrong. I was not. And then the president jumped on it,” he said. “I mean, that was an important issue, wasn't it? Getting the CDC to finally change its guidelines so that we would see the testing of asymptomatic individuals. I know you advocated for it, it’s kind of why I asked you the question.”
Birx said getting the CDC to change it’s guidelines was part of the reason she joined the White House team.
“That has been a long-term advocacy of mine. It was part of the reason, to be frank, why I came into the White House. Obviously, this was not my job. I have a lot of experience with tracking pandemics and understanding pandemic curves,” she said.
“And I could see that we weren't dealing with the core issues. You don't have those kind of curves in Italy. You don't have those kind of curves in New York City, with only symptomatic patients. It just didn't make sense. So either you had to have amazing aerosolized and surface transmission or you had to have the majority of the transmission being silent and asymptomatic. And so that has worried me from the very beginning. I've been forcing that issue from the beginning because I think it's core,” she added.