WH virus coordinator Deborah Birx says she will retire
Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, the U.S., March 31, 2020. /AP

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, the U.S., March 31, 2020. /AP

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, said Tuesday she plans to retire, but is willing to first help President-elect Joe Biden's team with its coronavirus response as needed.

Birx, in an interview with the news site Newsy, did not give a specific timetable on her plans.

"I will be helpful in any role that people think I can be helpful in, and then I will retire," Birx told the news outlet.

The statement came after her caught up in controversies concerning her daily travels and a Thanksgiving trip, which she insisted is about her work.

As COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in the U.S. before Thanksgiving, Deborah Birx warned Americans to "be vigilant" and limit celebrations to "your immediate household." However, for many Americans, including Birx, it has been difficult to follow this guidance. 

According to an AP report, Birx traveled to one of her vacation properties on Fenwick Island in Delaware the day after Thanksgiving. She was accompanied by three generations of her family from two households. Birx, her husband Paige Reffe, a daughter, son-in-law and two young grandchildren were present.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has asked Americans not to travel over the holidays and discourages indoor activity involving members of different households. "People who do not currently live in your housing unit, such as college students who are returning home from school for the holidays, should be considered part of different households."

Even in Birx's everyday life, there are challenges meeting that standard. She and her husband have a home in Washington. She also owns a home in nearby Potomac, Maryland, where her elderly parents, and her daughter and family live, and where Birx visits intermittently. In addition, the children's other grandmother, who is 77, also regularly travels to the Potomac house and returns to her 92-year-old husband near Baltimore.

Birx's own experiences underline the complexity and difficulty of trying to navigate the perils of the pandemic while balancing a job, family and health, especially among essential workers like her.

Yet some of Birx's peers in public health say she should be held to a higher standard given her prominent role in the government's response to the pandemic and the current surge in COVID-19 deaths across the country.

"To me this disqualifies her from any future government health position," said Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security. "It's a terrible message for someone in public health to be sending to the American people."

In response to AP's report, Birx acknowledged in a statement that she went to her Delaware property, but insisted the purpose of the roughly 50-hour visit was to deal with the winterization of the property before a potential sale – something she says she previously hadn't had time to do because of her busy schedule.

"I did not go to Delaware for the purpose of celebrating Thanksgiving," Birx said in her statement, adding that her family shared a meal together while in Delaware.

While in Delaware, she conducted an interview with CBS' "Face the Nation" in which she noted some Americans "went across the country or even into the next state" for the holiday weekend.

"Some people may have made mistakes over the Thanksgiving time period," Birx said in the interview, adding that those who traveled should assume they were infected.

Birx's job makes her an "essential worker" by federal guidelines, in a position that requires extensive travel to consult with state and local officials on the pandemic response. She has traveled to 43 states, driving 25,000 miles (about 40,200 kilometers), she said, often to coronavirus hot spots. Birx also has an office in the White House, where numerous COVID-19 infections have been revealed.

Numerous elected officials, including prominent Democrats, have been forced to acknowledge that they have not heeded their own stern warnings to the public about the dangers of spreading the virus.

But Birx occupies a position of far greater authority when it comes to the pandemic. Many Americans rely on the advice that she and the government's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have given.

Medical experts say public health officials such as Birx need to lead by example, including personal conduct that's beyond reproach.

"We need leadership to be setting an example, especially in terms of things they are asking average Americans to do who are far less privileged than they are," said Dr. Abraar Karan, a global health specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, about the high-profile lapses in judgment.

Birx came to the White House coronavirus task force with a sterling reputation. A public servant since the Reagan administration, Birx has served as a U.S. Army physician and a globally recognized AIDS researcher. She was pulled away from her ambassadorial post as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator to assist the task force in late February.

Birx, however, has faced criticism from public health experts and Democratic lawmakers for not speaking out forcefully against Trump when he contradicted advice from medical advisers and scientists about how to fight the virus.

While she stayed in Trump's good graces far longer than Fauci, who frequently contradicted Trump, the president by late summer had sidelined Birx, too.

Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University's law school who has known Birx professionally for years, said he's confident that Birx took all necessary precautions to minimize risks in her Thanksgiving travel. Still, he said it undercuts her larger goal to get Americans to cooperate with government officials' efforts to minimize the death and suffering caused by the virus.

"It's extraordinarily important for the leaders of the coronavirus response to model the behavior that they recommend to the public," Gostin said. "We lose faith in our public health officials if they are saying these are the rules but they don't apply to me."

(With input from AP)

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