Dr. Deborah Birx made misleading claims about epidemiological models. Right-wing media used them to downplay coronavirus.

Image of Dr. Birx on Fox News with the chyron, "Birx: Data does not match extreme predictions"

After White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx downplayed reports of equipment shortages at hospitals and said that “the predictions of the models” anticipating large-scale spread of COVID-19 “don't match the reality on the ground,” right-wing media were quick to praise her and attack the mainstream media for promoting “hysteria” over the virus. But experts and fact-checkers say Birx’s claims were “misleading” and “deceptive.”

Despite warnings from federal officials, President Donald Trump downplayed the threat of coronavirus for weeks with the help of his allies at Fox News and other right-wing outlets. In addition to minimizing the very real danger posed by the virus, right-wing media spread conspiracy theories about its origins, promoted medical and scientific misinformation, and attempted to profit by selling unsubstantiated cures and preventative measures.

When the severity of the situation could no longer be ignored, right-wing media seemingly shifted their rhetoric to focus on praising the administration’s response and attacking Trump’s critics -- particularly those in the mainstream media -- rather than directly downplaying the threat of the virus. However, some right-wing media figures have continued to minimize coronavirus by absurdly claiming that letting the economy suffer by shutting down nonessential businesses and telling people to stay at home is worse than them dying from the virus, saying that photos and videos of empty hospital parking lots and waiting rooms prove that the media is exaggerating the COVID-19 threat, and now using Birx’s misleading statements at a March 26 press conference to claim that the media is overhyping the threat.

At the press conference, Birx made several claims which experts and fact-checkers have called “misleading” and “false reassurance.” According to her, “when people start talking about 20 percent of a population getting infected, it's very scary. But we don't have data that matches that, based on the experience.” But U.S. epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, who was involved in developing the model that predicted large-scale transmission of COVID-19, pushed back, saying that such a statement is “really quite deceptive” and it is a “fundamental scientific error to take the current success of containment in some places as a sign that permanent containment is possible.”

In addition to criticizing prediction models, Birx claimed that 19 out of 50 states “had early cases but [now] have persistently low level of cases,” so “that’s almost 40 percent of the country with extraordinarily low numbers.” Factcheck.org called the statement “misleading” because “only 7.2% of the population lives in those states.”

At the same press conference, Birx also tried to downplay reports that health care providers are preparing to make tough choices because of equipment shortages. According to Birx, there is no evidence that when Americans “need a hospital bed, it's not going to be there, or when they need that ventilator, it's not going to be there.” However, numerous reports indicate that there are equipment shortages at health care facilities and health care providers are preparing to make such choices about who gets treatment. On the same day Birx made her statements, a doctor told CNN’s Jake Tapper that her friends who are health care providers in the New York area have told her they “feel like they are practicing medicine in a third world country at this time” because of the equipment and safety gear shortages.

Despite the inaccuracies of Birx’s claims, right-wing media immediately weaponized her statements to both praise her and downplay the threat of the virus by attacking mainstream media for creating a “hysteria” over the virus.

Right-wing media praised Birx and reiterated her misleading statements

  • Salem Media’s right-wing outlet RedState reiterated Birx’s claims from the March 26 press conference, characterizing it as “a few minutes of calm reality.”

  • One American News Network host Liz Wheeler also tweeted a clip of Birx, repeating, among others, her claim that prediction “models don’t match reality,” and wrote, “Dr. Birx for the WIN.”

  • Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton praised Birx for “another truth bomb.”
  • Fox News host Laura Ingraham claimed on Twitter that Birx “is reading the actual DATA that the Imperial College modelers had to admit they missed.”

  • Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) quote tweeted a video of Birx at the March 26 press conference, calling her “terrific.”

  • Kayleigh McEnany, national press security for Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, emphasized Birx’s comments as “big news” and repeated the misleading statement that “40% of the country now have ‘EXTRAORDINARY LOW NUMBERS’ of cases.”

Right-wing media use Birx’s comments to attack mainstream media for creating “hysteria” over the virus

  • Conservative talk radio host Jason Rantz tweeted a video of Birx, claiming that she was “low-key scolding the media” and that she “just destroyed the media narrative coming from CNN, MSNBC and progressive blue checkmarks.”

  • Newsbusters’ Curtis Houck also tweeted a video with Birx’s misleading comments about hospitals facing equipment shortage, writing, “Birx calmly but brutally tears apart the liberal media hysteria.” Houck’s video has been viewed more than 2.7 million times and was shared by other right-wing accounts on Twitter, all of which claimed that Birx is countering “media hysteria”:

    • Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller

    • Steve Cortes, spokesperson of the pro-Trump PAC America First

    • Salem Media talk radio host Chris Stigall

  • Team Trump, the official Twitter account for the Trump campaign, shared a similar video of Birx and claimed that in the video, she “pushes back on media hysteria about hospitals not having beds or ventilators available for patients.” 

  • In a tweet on March 27, Newsmax’s John Cardillo claimed that the media would “turn vicious on Dr. Birx now that she debunked some of their fear and panic peddling.”

  • Former Hill columnist and current Fox News contributor John Solomon said Birx was telling the media to “stop frightening Americans, worst case scenarios are not playing out.”

  • Margot Cleveland, senior contributor to The Federalist, tweeted that “in her own way” Birx called the mainstream media “Fake News.”

  • Trump War Room, which is another Trump campaign Twitter account, tweeted that Birx “asked the media to stop scaring Americans with lies about ventilator shortages.”