Last June, the U.S. public-health physician Deborah Birx and her chief epidemiologist Irum Zaidi began a road trip across America to see first-hand the path of the pandemic.
Birx, who made her career combatting HIV and AIDS, had been appointed to the vice president’s task force overseeing the country’s response to COVID-19. As we now know, the task force, like most of the federal response, suffered from next to no leadership by the president.
The idea for the road trip came to the women after the White House brought in Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who asserted that masks did little to stop the spread of SARS-1. As if that weren’t enough to disqualify him, Atlas also advocated for allowing the virus to move freely through the population with the aim of spurring so-called herd immunity.
We know this thanks to the reporting of Lawrence Wright, whose New Yorker issue-length account of America’s mistakes and struggles in confronting the virus may be the most comprehensive first draft of history of a pandemic ever reported.
As the task force began to dissolve amid the dearth of leadership and absurdity of Atlas’ views, Birx and Zaidi decided to hit the road. As Wright tells it, the idea was inspired by the duo’s travels together across Africa meeting with local leaders about HIV and AIDS.
In the months to follow, Birx and Zaidi crossed the U.S. eight times, visiting 43 states. In that time, reports Wright:
Birx corralled politicians, hospital executives, and public-health officials, often bringing such leaders together for the first time. She took charts and slides from state to state, promoting a simple, consistent message about masks, social distancing, transparency, and responsible leadership. She was the only federal official doing so.
The duo encountered governors like Jim Justice of West Virginia, who had mandated wearing of masks and who at press briefings read the names of West Virginians who had died of COVID-19. “West Virginia represents exactly what we want to see across the country — a commonsense approach based on the data,” said Birx.
In South Dakota, Governor Kristi Noem, who had refused to issue a mask mandate, “couldn’t find time to meet with Birx,” reports Wright.
Wright’s account deserves to be read in its entirety. Especially as the U.S. records nearly 23 million cases of COVID-19 and deaths from the disease are averaging about 4,400 a day. “The U.S. is already by far the most affected region of its size on the planet,” The Washington Post noted on Wednesday.
Throughout their travels, Birx and Zaidi found that both Democratic and Republican governors had the same complaint. “Many people wouldn’t listen as long as Trump refused to set an example,” Wright reports.