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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How one doctor wrecked the pandemic response

White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Scott Atlas speaks during a news conference on Sept. 23, 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP)

In the very early days of the pandemic, a health policy expert and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Scott Atlas, wrote to a high-level government official in Washington that lockdowns and other measures were wrong. “The panic needs to be stopped both about the need for lockdown and even a frantic need for urgent testing,” he said on March 21, 2020. This set the tone for a strategy known as herd immunity that he advocated at the White House starting in July as an aide to President Donald Trump. It was misguided, costly and wrong.

The full extent of his advice and influence is disclosed in the majority staff report of the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, published on June 21. Through emails and other documents, as well as interviews with participants, including Dr. Atlas, it provides a disturbing examination of the Trump pandemic response in that ill-fated election year before vaccines were available. According to the report, the administration embraced “a dangerous and discredited herd immunity via mass infection strategy,” which “likely resulted in many deaths that would have been prevented by an effective national mitigation strategy.” The House report underscores the role in this effort of Dr. Atlas, who attended meetings in the Oval Office, huddled with other White House advisers, edited the president’s prepared remarks, and altered guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The herd immunity idea advanced by Dr. Atlas and others called for protecting the most vulnerable, primarily the elderly, but allowing the virus to spread through the rest of the population to create natural immunity. The approach discouraged masks, lockdowns and testing. For example, in August, according to the report, Dr. Atlas provided extensive comments on draft testing guidance by the CDC, repeatedly inserting language to narrow testing recommendations. He also was against face masks, writing to other White House aides on Oct. 4, “In fact, there is vanishingly little hard evidence that masks actually work to block transmission of the virus.”

It’s true that natural immunity exists, and must be considered in any pandemic response. But in the Trump administration, herd immunity was too often an excuse for inaction. Masks did work. Testing is important. A strategy of mass infection risked exposing untold numbers to long covid. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, wrote in August that she could not join a meeting on herd immunity with people “who believe we are fine with only protecting the 1.5M Americans” in long-term care facilities “and not the 80M+ with co-morbidities.”

The House report doesn’t deal with Mr. Trump’s successful vaccine development and manufacturing drive. But it does show how Mr. Trump embraced a wrongheaded policy that appealed to his hope the virus would go away — along with the needed restrictions — while he campaigned for reelection.

How wrong was Dr. Atlas? In that March email, he said that judging by early estimates, the virus might cause about 10,000 deaths. In the end, it directly caused at least 1 million deaths in the United States and indirectly many more.


An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly described Scott Atlas's employment with Stanford University. This version has been updated.