Deborah Birx touts masks in Wisconsin as conservatives try to throw out the state’s mask mandate

MADISON – White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx touted the need to wear masks Monday during a stop in Wisconsin, even as conservatives pursue a lawsuit to overturn the state’s mask requirement.

Asked about the importance of wearing masks, Birx cited how Southern states addressed a surge in coronavirus cases this summer.

“We had a lot of cases across the South,” Birx told reporters. “These Southern governors and leaders put in mask mandates, increased social distancing, decreased occupancy in restaurants and now just four weeks later, they’ve dramatically decreased their number of cases. 

“If we ever needed an evidence base of what these mitigation efforts can do when we work together, this is the evidence base. It’s no longer theoretic. If we mitigate together as a community, we can stop the spread of this virus.”

Birx made her comments a week after individuals represented by the conservative Wisconsin Institue for Law & Liberty sued to overturn Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ order that people wear masks while indoors, other than in private residences. 

While those bringing the lawsuit are asking a judge to find Evers didn’t have the power to issue his order, they are not seeking to have the requirement immediately thrown out. That means the case may not be decided until after the mask requirement expires. 

Rick Esenberg, WILL’s president, said his lawsuit was focused on the limits of the governor’s power. Mask requirements can be put in place in areas where infection rates are high, but not in the way Evers did it, he argued. 

“Dr. Birx’ statement that correlation proves causation, while clearly incorrect on its own terms, might ultimately prove correct,” he said in a statement. “But, if a mandate is a good idea, it must be adopted legally.”

Birx was in Madison to talk to Wisconsin officials and health care representatives about COVID-19 as part of a tour of states. Among those she met with was Tommy Thompson, the University of Wisconsin System president whom she knows from his time as health and human services secretary under President George W. Bush. 

“I think he has taken a very serious and public-health approach to this,” Birx said. “He has a plan for surveillance testing, he has a plan for surge testing … and I think equally importantly, he has a plan for caring for students who become positive.”

She suggested that could help UW avoid the problems of colleges that have seen clusters of cases once students arrived on campus.

“He’s not only planned to find the cases but also care for those cases and so I think that’s a very forward-leaning way to address potential spread in universities,” she said. 

Birx downplayed a report in the Washington Post that White House medical adviser Scott Atlas was advocating for a herd immunity strategy that would see resistance to the virus to build by allowing it to run through the U.S. population. 

Birx said she didn’t back that approach and said President Donald Trump didn’t either. 

“The president does like to hear from scientists across the United States and I think you know that one of the scientists that really believes in herd immunity is in the White House,” she said. “And we have very open and transparent and vigorous discussions about what that means.

“You know what happens with herd immunity. It was created because there are certain viruses for which there isn’t a vaccine among herds and you let it move through that herd and you accept a level of mortality of your piglets, of your ducks, of your chickens, of your cows, and then there’s protection in that herd so you don’t have it recur. I don’t think anyone in the United States, including the president, was willing to accept that level of mortality among the individuals of America that we know are among a higher risk for that.”

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.