The Bizarre, Partisan Attacks on Dr. Deborah Birx

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Posted: Mar 27, 2020 1:01 PM
The Bizarre, Partisan Attacks on Dr. Deborah Birx

On Wednesday, they were upset that President Trump called her "Deborah" after calling her male counterpart "Dr. Fauci."  By Thursday, they started turning on her because she decided to use some of her screen time at the daily Coronavirus task force briefing -- which, astoundingly, many of them want partially censored -- to caution against hysteria based on worst-case-scenario modeling and projections.  In case you missed it, this is what raised hackles and generated misplaced rage:

She's making two big points, which are simultaneously both quite simple and technically complicated. Simple versions: (1) Worst-case scenario models of Coronavirus infections and deaths are not actually being borne out in on-the-ground data (she'd also also previously explained how many of the scariest numbers were based on projections that assumed zero response to the virus, which is obviously not the case).  She makes reference to these developments, in which an influential British study drastically scaled back its estimated death toll in recent days, which is explained well here. That encouraging movement was spurred by decisive action and disruptive mitigation steps -- which Birx has of course advocated and endorsed.  In any case, the most horrifying potential outcomes are not materializing in real life at this point, and Birx thought it was important to help calm people down by pointing out this fact.

(2) Birx also noted that as of now, ICU bed and ventilator shortages in Greater New York City have not overwhelmed care.  This is true "right now," as she says, but that qualifying fragment could very well be temporary.  The scenes out of New York are frightening, and the scarcity of both ICU beds and ventilators is becoming a big problem.  Some people are knocking her for downplaying an acute issue that could soon be undeniable, but I think what she's getting at is that media 'crisis porn,' if you will, should not irresponsibly cross into fear-mongering.  In the clip above, she explicitly warns against misreporting 'do not resuscitate' and triage contingency plans as active realities, thus stoking exaggerated fears.  Almost exactly on cue, a former top Obama administration healthcare official tweeted something grossly misleading, suggesting that a major hospital in the Midwest had run out of ventilators and was starting to withhold care from certain patients to help save others.  The hospital denied this, explaining that their plan for that terrible possible scenario had leaked and was being shared as if it had been implemented.  Nevertheless, the misinformation was amplified my several major media figures, before the original alarmist tweet was deleted.  This thread is useful as a quick and maddening summary of what happened, which vindicated Birx's point.  

But the knives had already started to get unsheathed, as lefty Twitter decided that because she wasn't engaging in sufficiently alarmist pessimism -- and was politely scolding the media and other doomsayers -- she'd gone in the tank for Trump.  This is an extraordinarily ridiculous and insulting accusation, given her profound expertise and long, impressive career spanning administrations of both political parties.  Listen to the experts, they scream, unless and until one of those experts says something we don't like.  When the prevailing orthodoxy is threatened, the smear machine gets revved up.  Here's a CNN commentator and Clinton comms alum misspelling her name while peddling a conspiracy about Birx:


And here's an Obama comms alum, best known for hurling hyper-partisan rhetorical grenades, telling Birx -- the actual expert -- what she should be saying and how she should be doing her job.  I do believe this is what his ilk would refer to as textbook 'mansplaining:'


"Listen toots, let me tell you a few things about doctorin'...you need to stop 'lecturing' people and start doing your job the way I want you to.  Got it?"  I'm flabbergasted:


Let's be clear: This is a massive crisis that will continue to impact the world in awful ways for weeks or months.  There are worrisome scenes playing out around the country, with potential new hotspots flaring up.  People who are still calling this pandemic overblown, or itching to prematurely pronounce it over, are dangerously wrong.  But one can comprehend and even fear the seriousness of this ongoing threat without reflexively and uncritically swallowing every 'parade of horribles' projection out there, especially as some of the scariest models have massively reassessed their assumptions. (I'd add that it's tricky to reconcile all the charts flying around social media, which seem to paint dramatically different pictures of what's really happening, and how relatively good or bad America's position is in all of this).  

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Birx's admonitions about models versus observed data and counter-productive sensationalism are fair and reasonable.  And this is literally her area of expertise.  She's not infallible, and even good-faith experts can get things wrong, but I'm far more inclined to listen to a woman of her stature and experience than the political hyenas slandering her.  She and Dr. Fauci are doing exhausting, critical yeoman's work; they deserve to be thanked, not fed through partisan meat-grinders.  I'll leave you with the latest poll showing President Trump's approval rating on the rise (+2 overall, +7 on Coronavirus, according to the Washington Post and ABC News), with this smart, related analysis:


Meanwhile, some in the national media simply cannot help themselves.