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Birx says there was no "full-time team" working on COVID response in Trump White House

Dr. Deborah Birx on politics of the pandemic
Dr. Deborah Birx on her time in the White House and pandemic politics 30:55

Washington — Dr. Deborah Birx, the former White House coronavirus response coordinator under former President Donald Trump, revealed that she had no full-time team in the White House working on the response to COVID-19 under the former president.

In an interview with "Face the Nation" that aired Sunday, Birx said that she was "an N of 1" during her tenure in the White House as the coronavirus response coordinator. In contrast, she praised President Joe Biden for building a team of experts in testing, vaccines, data and data use, as well as a full-time supply chain point-person. During the Trump administration, those individuals existed "in different pockets of government," Birx said.

"There was no team, full-time team in the White House working on coronavirus," she told "Face the Nation," adding that she did ask for more staff. Birx noted she had "one incredible support person" named Tyler Ann McGuffee who helped make sure that she was at meetings on time and did not miss emails.

Birx, a former U.S. Army colonel and adviser at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the Trump administration's structure meant that she was the "only full-time person in the White House working on the coronavirus response."

"That's what I was given," she said. "So what I did is, I went to my people that I've known all through the last years in government, all 41, and said, can you come and help me? And so I was able to recruit from other agencies, individuals." 

Among those she recruited was Irum Zaidi, who worked with Birx on the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

A senior adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence, who led the White House coronavirus task force, confirmed to CBS News that the staff who worked with Birx were from her days with PEPFAR, and that she put together that team. However, the adviser disputed the premise that Birx was denied necessary staff.

"There were 7-8 full-time staff detailed from other agencies to her. They were paid," the senior adviser told CBS News. Pence, meanwhile, was also given no additional White House staff, and his existing team worked on the COVID-19 response.

There have been nearly 25 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. and more than 417,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Biden has warned the outbreak will get worse before it improves, and has made combatting the coronavirus his top priority.

On his first full day in office, Mr. Biden rolled out a national strategy for fighting the coronavirus and used his executive authority to boost production of vaccines, testing supplies and personal protective equipment.

Birx stressed that for the new administration, having a team at the White House to respond to the ongoing pandemic "is going to be really, really important."

"The amount of work that needs to be done not only at the White House but also at the state level to really ensure that we come out of this in some kind of normalcy by summer will be really critical," she said.

Part of the new administration's success, she said, will be bringing together experts in testing, vaccines, data and data use, and supply chain management.

Birx spent much of 2020 on the road meeting with state and local leaders and said she and Zaidi wanted to determine what federal support states needed, as well as how they were interpreting guidance from the CDC. In private, Birx encouraged governors to disregard Mr. Trump's dismissiveness of mask-wearing and his pressure to reopen the economy faster than federal health guidelines would permit.

"That was the place where people would let me say what needed to be said about the pandemic, both in private with the governors and then in following up, doing press to talk to the people of that state," she said. 

Birx said that she felt her science-based guidance was being censored by the White House and that she was being deliberately blocked from appearing on national media outlets for a time. By driving herself cross-country to meet face-to-face with governors, Birx said she could deliver her guidance and also understand why local leaders might be disregarding it.

As for whether Pence was aware of Birx's conversations with governors, the senior adviser to the former vice president told CBS News "he was supportive of the process but did not have a great level of detail."

Birx provided Pence's staff with regular reports, though the senior adviser said he may not have read them all and did not sign off on them. The adviser disputed the premise of censorship, pointing out that her written reports to governors were cleared through the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs prior to publication. 

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