Exploring Human Potential

Public Health, The Media, and The Performance of Deborah Birx.

Posted on | April 28, 2020 | 8 Comments

Mike Magee

Imagine there was a time in our living memory when a Washington Post reporter and a woman public health official shared a mutual passion – the health and welfare of Americans. 

Imagine this woman was steely in her determination, but shy and refused the spotlight. And imagine that those lined up against her were both powerful and aggressive, and were on record of having attempted – dozens of times – to get her fired.

Imagine now that she woke up one morning, and picked up her Washington Post in the driveway, walked back to the kitchen table, filled her coffee cup, and read the headline, “Heroine Keeps Bad Drug Off Market.”

And as she reads on, “This is the story of how the skepticism and stubbornness of a Government physician prevented what could have been an appalling American tragedy. The story is not one of inspired prophecies nor of dramatic research breakthroughs.”

“She saw her duty in sternly simple terms, and she carried it out, living the while with insinuations that she was a bureaucratic nitpicker, unreasonable – even, she said, stupid. That such attributes could have been ascribed to her is, by her own acknowledgement, not surprising, considering all of the circumstances.”

“What she did was refuse to be hurried into approving an application for a new drug. She regarded its safety as unproven.”

This is not the story of Dr. Deborah Birx. Her’s is a different story. Faced with wild claims of an errant President that hydroxychloroquine showed promise of curing covid-19, she remained self-sidelined, even after studies demonstrated no efficacy and established that cardiac fatalities were an associated risk of the therapy.

Birx is also the government scientist who allowed herself to acquiesce to her embattled President and appear Saturday evening on FOX News, and in response to the host’s question , “Do you think the media in this country has been fair throughout this pandemic?”, responded, “I think the media is very slicey and dicey about how they put sentences together in order to create headlines.”

And she is the doctor who, 12 hour’s later, appeared on Jake Tapper’s CNN Sunday program and was questioned about the President’s suggestion that ingesting or injecting disinfectants might be helpful. Asked “As a doctor, doesn’t that bother you that you have to even spend any time discussing this?”, she defended her bosses remarks as “musings”. And then said, “It bothers me that this is still in the news cycle, because I think we’re missing the bigger pieces of what we need to be doing as an American people to continue to protect one another.  As a scientist and a public health official and a researcher, sometimes I worry that we don’t get the information to the American people that they need when we continue to bring up something that was from Thursday night.”

The other Public Health doctor, received the President’s Award for Distinguished Civilian Service on August 7, 1962, in acknowledgement of her strength and personal fortitude which protected thousands of children from thalidomide, and lead to the passage of the Kefauver-Harris Amendment that required drugs be proven to be not only safe, but effective. Her name was Frances Oldham Kelsey, and she worked for the FDA for thirty more years, and died at age 101.

She remained friends for life with Morton Mintz, the Washington Post reporter, who broke the thalidomide story. Their values were well aligned as this salute to him by his colleague, Colman McCarthy, on Morton’s retirement in 1988, suggests.

“Mintz regularly wrote stories after reading thousands of pages of trial transcript, court exhibits and pre- and post-trial proceedings. Were he less a shelf rat and more a show horse, Mintz might be better known. But not better respected. His stories had reach because his commitments had depth.”

Dr. Birx is not Dr. Kelsey. But the Washington Post and New York Times have many reporters who, in their journalistic service to our nation, emulate Morton Mintz, and who must continue to make him proud. He is 98 and lives in Washington, DC.


8 Responses to “Public Health, The Media, and The Performance of Deborah Birx.”

    April 28th, 2020 @ 10:10 am

    Worldwide it has been observed the challenge of having heads of state and governments to take the lead on the pandemic of COVID-19. A handful do well, all of them because they have strong science advisors, and are capable of listening to them. This is true at the national and sub-national levels. Public health professionals have to be trained to stick to principles and speak up and to power, having the medical principle of “first, do not harm” at their heart and mind. People deserve the best science.

  2. Maurice Bessman
    April 28th, 2020 @ 10:41 am

    I believe Dr Birk is a “sell-out”, and she has lost most of her credibility by not calling out Trump just as soon as he made that asinine suggestion to try out the efficacy of internal light and especially disinfectants to combat covid-19.
    A friend of mine explains her reluctance to call Trump out as her fear of being sidelined, and losing her efficacy in presenting a modulating influence on Trump’s unparalleled stupidity and egotism. I reject that notion.

  3. Art Ulene
    April 28th, 2020 @ 1:16 pm

    Bravo. We are shamed by her silence, and others–less fortunate than you and I–are endangered by it. Shame on her.

  4. Mike Magee
    April 28th, 2020 @ 6:00 pm

    Thanks for this, Art!

  5. Mike Magee
    April 28th, 2020 @ 6:01 pm

    I also reject this notion. Thanks, Maurice!

  6. Mike Magee
    April 28th, 2020 @ 6:01 pm

    Thank you, Carlos, for your thoughtful comment.

  7. Susanna Davison
    April 28th, 2020 @ 10:45 pm

    Such appallingly cheap shots at Dr. Birks! (Meanwhile, Dr.Fauci refuses to cooperate with the writer but still gets a Profile in The New Yorker.) This commentary leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. It is false equivalency to compare Deborah Birks with Frances Kelsey. Please think of a more constructive way to respond to the odious Trump-Pence Pandemic Circus

  8. Mike Magee
    April 30th, 2020 @ 4:20 pm

    Thanks for this, Susanna. Both Birx and Fauci have been treading a thin line. It’s a tricky question. Who’s “using” who, and to what advantage? When is “enough enough”, and if you reach that point, what is the best way to disengage, and express yourself constructively to accomplish appropriate change? As many before have discovered, the fastest way to destroy a professional reputation is to insert yourself in Trump’s orbit. Too often, your good intentions never hit the mark, and you realize you’ve been had.

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