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Health Officials Worry About New Trump Adviser's 'Herd Immunity Strategy'

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Health Officials Worry About New Trump Adviser's 'Herd Immunity Strategy'

2020-09-01 21:04:31

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer: Image: Scott Atlas (Image source Screenshot)


We are eight months past the day China first announced it was dealing with an unknown virus. In a few weeks we'll be at eight months past the first case appearing in the United States. Yet, we still don't have a cohesive plan on how to get through it, other than waiting for a vaccine.

It's obvious Donald Trump views what is now the coronavirus pandemic as something that could prevent him from being reelected, so he desperately wants it to go away. But it's not that easy. He wants an end to this new life that we are struggling to embrace of closing businesses, wearing masks, social distancing, remote learning, and testing.

He has promoted less testing, opening up businesses, and returning to school. He has argued against science and pushed out health officials who disagreed. He has finally found a doctor whose philosophy requires inaction, something that Trump can finally promote.

A new medical adviser to his team, Dr. Scott Atlas, embraces the "herd immunity strategy. This plan entails allowing the virus to spread through the population to build resistance while protecting those who are most vulnerable. Current and former officials say the administration has already begun to implement a few policies that line up with that strategy.

A neuroradiologist and fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, Atlas joined the White House in August as a pandemic adviser. He believes the United States should adopt Sweden's model to respond to the pandemic, according to the officials. He prefers their strategy to the current one of limiting social and business interactions to prevent the spread of the virus.

Sweden's take on handling the pandemic has been panned by public health officials and infectious-disease experts. They see it as reckless, and the infection and death rates there are among the highest. Besides, it is still dealing with a weakened economy. But it's gaining support among conservatives who argue social distancing is killing the economy and limiting people's freedoms.

Experts inside and outside the government are concerned that the White House is considering this approach. They believe a heard immunity strategy could lead to anywhere between hundreds of thousands and millions of deaths in the U.S.

"The administration faces some pretty serious hurdles in making this argument. One is a lot of people will die, even if you can protect people in nursing homes," said New York University professor Paul Romer, who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in economics.

"Once it's out in the community, we've seen over and over again, it ends up spreading everywhere."

Atlas does not have a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology. He has earned influence in the administration by pushing policies that appeal to Donald Trump's desire to not deal with COVID-19 and restart the economy. This upsets health officials on the White House coronavirus task force as well as throughout the administration. They worry their advice isn't being followed much anymore.

Atlas declined The Washington Post's requests for an interview. After they published their report, he released a statement that read, "There is no policy of the president or [sic] this administration of achieving herd immunity. There never has been any such policy recommended to the president or to anyone else from me."

At a Florida event with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), he falsely said the Post had never asked him for a comment, but the Post claims to have reached out to him on August 21, August 28, and August 30 via phone and email. Those answering the phone declined an interview on his behalf.

White House communications director Alyssa Farah denies there has been a change to the White House's approach to the pandemic. "President Trump is fully focused on defeating the virus through therapeutics and, ultimately, a vaccine. There is no discussion about changing our strategy," she said in a statement.

"We have initiated an unprecedented effort under Operation Warp Speed to safely bring a vaccine to market in record time — ending this virus through medicine is our top focus."

White House officials admit Trump has asked questions about the controversial strategy but claim he has not formally embraced it. However, his public comments seem to advocate it.

"We are aggressively sheltering those at highest risk, especially the elderly, while allowing lower-risk Americans to safely return to work and to school, and we want to see so many of those great states be open," he said during the Republican National Convention. "We want them to be open. They have to be open. They have to get back to work."

One senior administration official said that Atlas sees himself as the "anti-Dr. Fauci." He, in fact,  has clashed with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official, along with Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

Atlas has argued that an increased case count will move the U.S. more quickly to herd immunity and won't lead to more deaths if the vulnerable are protected. But infectious-disease experts disagree. They explained that more than 25,000 people younger than 65 have died of the virus in this country. There is also a larger number of vulnerable people of all ages.

"When younger, healthier people get the disease, they don't have a problem with the disease. I'm not sure why that's so difficult for everyone to acknowledge," said Atlas in an interview with Fox News's Brian Kilmeade over the summer.

"These people getting the infection is not really a problem, and in fact, as we said months ago, when you isolate everyone, including all the healthy people, you're prolonging the problem because you're preventing population immunity. Low-risk groups getting the infection is not a problem."

He also points to lockdowns and social distancing restrictions having a health cost as well. There are problems associated with people losing their jobs and health care insurance and being afraid to visit a doctor.

"From personal communications with neurosurgery colleagues, about half of their patients have not appeared for treatment of disease which, left untreated, risks brain hemorrhage, paralysis, or death," he wrote in a newspaper in May.

It's believed, despite what the White House says, that Trump may be moving toward the herd immunity strategy, as the Department of Health and Human Services invoked the Defense Production Act in August to increase testing at nursing homes, yet testing elsewhere remains in short supply. Both Trump and Atlas have repeatedly pushed to open schools, despite outbreaks in many schools that have reopened.

Additionally, last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also updated its testing protocol. It now says that asymptomatic people do not have to be tested. 

This led to concern from medical groups, infectious-disease experts, and local health officials. They say this change means asymptomatic people who had contact with an infected person would not be tested, and they would then be free to spread the disease, hence moving closer to herd immunity.

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