Dr. Deborah Birx Says COVID Deaths Could Have Been Avoided: ‘Substantially’

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Alex Wong/Getty From left to right: Coronavirus Task Force members Vice President Mike Pence, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Dr. Deborah Birx

Former federal health officials who worked with Donald Trump's administration spoke candidly in a new CNN special Sunday, highlighted by Dr. Deborah Birx who said many of the COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. could have been prevented.

Birx, who was Trump's coronavirus task force coordinator, told CNN she believes the initial 100,000 deaths during COVID-19's first surge last spring were understandable, because officials didn't yet fully understand the virus or how to treat it.

But many of the hundreds of thousands that came later, she said, could have been mitigated.

"I look at it this way: the first time we have an excuse," Birx, 64, told CNN's Sanjay Gupta, who hosted the COVID WAR: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out special.

"There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge," Birx said. "All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially."

At least 548,867 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, according to a New York Times tracker, while more than 30.2 million have contracted the virus.

MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images Donald Trump looks on as Dr. Deborah Birx speaks at the White House

Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock Donald Trump looks on as Dr. Deborah Birx speaks at the White House

Birx, who recently retired from her post in the U.S. government and joined the George W. Bush Institute as a senior fellow, said that the primary issue with the Trump administration's handing of the virus came down to "messaging."

Not only did Trump, 74, deliberately attempt to downplay the severity of the pandemic in public, but Birx said the former president also pushed back against federal health experts who warned how dangerous COVID-19 was.

Birx has been criticized herself for not speaking out more aggressively against Trump's misinformation about the pandemic.

During one interview last March, Birx said the former president — who went on to suggest the idea of injecting bleach into a person to somehow cure the virus — was "so attentive to the scientific literature." (One former White House staffer later said the few task force meetings Trump's showed up at, he "spent more time about who was going to call Fox and yell at them to set them straight than he did on the virus.")

Birx suggested Sunday that the members of Trump's COVID-19 task force were closely scrutinized by the former president and his administration.

RELATED: Dr. Birx Remembers When Trump Suggested Injecting Disinfectant to Kill COVID: 'Extraordinarily Uncomfortable'

"I knew I was being watched," Birx told CNN. "Everybody inside was looking for me to make a misstep so that they could, I guess, remove me from the task force."

Trump had been criticized last summer for publicly musing about firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Birx told Gupta, 51, she had a "very uncomfortable" phone call with Trump after she spoke bluntly about the pandemic during an August 2020 CNN interview. In the interview, Birx said people in rural areas were "not immune" to COVID-19, saying it was becoming "extraordinarily widespread."

"That was a very difficult time, because everybody in the White House was upset with that interview and the clarity that I brought about the epidemic," Birx said.

RELATED: Mitt Romney Says Republicans Need to 'Make It Real Clear' COVID Vaccines Work As Some Lawmakers Decline Shots

Birx would not go into specifics about what Trump said on the call.

"I think you've heard other conversations that people have posted with the president," the former federal health official said. "I would say it was even more direct than what people have heard. It was very uncomfortable, very direct, and very difficult to hear."

Asked if she was threatened, Dr. Birx again reiterated: "I would say it was a very difficult conversation."

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Dr. Deborah Birx

Birx suggested that after the August 2020 interview with CNN, she had been blocked from press interviews and other national speaking engagements.

"Clearly someone was blocking me from doing it," she said Sunday. "My understanding is I could not be national because the president might see it."

Birx told CNN her decision to join the COVID-19 task force was because she "could see the avalanche coming, and I could see that we were not prepared, and I thought I could do something."

RELATED: Dr. Fauci Defends the Importance of Wearing Masks to Sen. Rand Paul: 'Here We Go Again'

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who frequently experienced friction with Trump in 2020, told Gupta during Sunday's special that one of the most surprising things he saw the former presdient do was tweet about "liberating" states that were under lockdown, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

The tweets Fauci mentioned, which Trump published in April 2020, were posted in support of right-wing protestors who were angered by the economic shutdown measures.

"The thing that hit me like a punch to the chest was then all of a sudden he got up and said 'Liberate Virginia, Liberate Michigan,' " Fauci, 80, recalled. "And I said to myself, 'Oh my goodness. What is going on here?' "

"It shocked me because it was such a jolt to what we were trying to do," Fauci said.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.