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Dr. Birx Is A Prominent Figure On White House Coronavirus Task Force


Dr. Deborah Birx has one of the most important jobs in the world. She is the White House coronavirus response coordinator and a regular at daily White House briefings.


DEBORAH BIRX: Each person has to be responsible in the way that they decrease their interaction with others - the 6 feet. And you're all very social distanced, so thank you.

INSKEEP: Referring to the reporters there who spread out in the White House press room. So who is Dr. Birx? NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien has been looking into that. Hi there, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Where did she come from, and how did she get into this role?

BEAUBIEN: So she is a medical doctor. You know, prior to this newest job, she's very well-known in the world of public health and HIV. Before this crisis, she was the global AIDS coordinator, which is this ambassador level job inside the State Department. Interestingly, she's an Obama-era appointee, one of the few holdovers from the Obama administration. And her job is to oversee the U.S. government's efforts to combat the spread of HIV globally. She was named to the Coronavirus Task Force exactly a month ago on February 26.

INSKEEP: How did she become a more prominent figure, at least in public, than the head of the Centers for Disease Control?

BEAUBIEN: You know, it is really interesting. You know, definitely President Trump turns to her during these briefings as one of her primary people. Vice President Pence refers to her as his right arm. She makes it very clear she's very data-driven. She wants the administration's response to be evidence-based. But she also - you know, she takes this role where she talks about how scary the outbreak is. And she often ends up as the bearer of bad news, like when she dropped that people from New York City have to self-quarantine, as if they just left Wuhan or northern Italy. But she does it in this very calm, reassuring way. And then on Wednesday night, she told this story about the guilt of her grandmother, who as a young girl during the 1918 flu, had brought home the virus that ended up killing her great-grandmother.


BIRX: I can tell you my grandmother lived with that for 88 years. So this is what we're trying. This is the message that's important to everybody. This is not a theoretic. This is a reality. You can see the number of deaths that are occurring. We all have a role in preventing them.

BEAUBIEN: And when she calls on people to stay home and to make sacrifices, she points out that she herself hasn't seen her own grandkids in, like, three weeks.

INSKEEP: Jason, you mentioned that she's data-driven, that the president seems to turn for her - turn to her for advice, even in public. But the president keeps saying, open up the country. Open up the country. Open up the country. Is she able to get through to the president and tell him facts that he doesn't want to hear?

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, obviously, she's inside this administration. But people say that being diplomatic is one of her skills, that that is something that she had to do when she was trying to work on wiping out HIV and AIDS. And Birx has this reputation in Washington as someone who's smart, tough and gets things done. I talked to A. Toni Young, the head of Community Education Group. It's a nonprofit that does a lot of work around HIV.

A TONI YOUNG: One of the critical things in public health and in politics, frankly, is that you have to be trusted. And I believe that Dr. Birx is, in fact, trusted.

BEAUBIEN: Young, like so many people, says this coronavirus is, you know, a huge challenge for the country. But she says it was a turning point for her when she saw both Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx there on the task force.

YOUNG: When I saw she and Dr. Fauci, I said, we have a chance. We honestly have a chance.

BEAUBIEN: You know, her hope is that Fauci, with his deep scientific experience, and then Birx, with this wealth of public health experience, can keep the White House focused on the systems, the things that really need to get done to get this country through this crisis.

INSKEEP: Jason, thanks for the update.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.

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