Pandemic Timeline: America’s Dangerous Doctor

This post first appeared at BillMoyers.com on Oct. 23, 2029.

Dr. Scott Atlas is a radiologist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has no expertise in infectious diseases, epidemiology or public health. But Dr. Atlas does say the things that Trump wants to hear. So now he is a leading voice on the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Dr. Atlas and Testing

Widespread testing for COVID-19 is essential to containing the pandemic. That’s because pre-symptomatic individuals can transmit the virus to others and because 40 percent of infected individuals may never experience symptoms but can still be contagious.

June 20 – 22: At his rally in Tulsa, Trump says, “When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people; you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.” Immediately the medical community flags his remarks as both absurd and antithetical to any COVID-19 containment strategy. So to limit the damage, his advisers claim that he was, of course, just kidding. Trump responds, “I don’t kid, let me just tell you, let me make it clear.”

July 13: Asked about America’s disproportionately large number of COVID-19 infections, Trump doubles down, “We test more than anybody, by far. And when you test, you create cases. So we’ve created cases.”

Throughout July: Dr. Atlas is informally advising the White House after Trump sees him on Fox echoing Trump’s views on the need to reopen schools and railing against the “frenzy” of mass testing.

Aug. 3:  Appearing on Fox News, Dr. Atlas says, contrary to all evidence, that “people are kidding themselves” about the value of testing individuals who don’t have symptoms. 

Aug. 10: Trump introduces Dr. Atlas as the newest member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Aug. 24: The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control quietly revises its online guidance to reduce COVID-19 testing for individuals with recent exposure to COVID-19 but who do not exhibit symptoms.

Aug. 26: CNN reports that individuals at the top levels of the Trump administration pushed for the CDC’S change in guidance: “It’s coming from the top down.” According to The New York Times, “[T]he shift came as a directive to the Atlanta-based CDC from higher-ups in Washington at the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services.”Likewise, ABC News reports that people in the trenches are horrified by the CDC’s revised testing guidance because it gives the impression that asymptomatic people cannot transmit the disease, whereas the universal view of the scientific community is that asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals are driving community spread.

Sept. 9: A group of 78 researchers and doctors from Stanford Medical School publishes an open letter criticizing Dr. Atlas for spreading what they characterize as “falsehoods and misrepresentations of science” relating to the coronavirus.

Sept. 16 – 17: Dr. Atlas’ lawyer — who represented Trump personally in the Russia investigation and other matters — threatens to sue the Stanford researchers and doctors who signed the September 9 letter. In response, more than 100 Stanford doctors, scientists, public health experts and faculty members send a letter to Dr. Atlas’ legal team, saying that such threats will not intimidate or silence them.

Sept. 18: The CDC reverses itself in response to universal backlash from medical and public health organizations, including the American Medical AssociationAssociation of American Medical CollegesInfectious Diseases Society of America, and American Academy of Pediatrics. Revising its guidance again, the CDC urges, “Due to the significance of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, this guidance further reinforces the need to test asymptomatic persons, including close contacts of a person with documented SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

Dr. Atlas and Face Masks

Face masks are effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

Sept. 16: Testifying before Congress, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield says, “We have clear scientific evidence they work, and they are our best defense. I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.” 

Oct. 17: Dr. Atlas tweets, “Masks work? NO…—” followed by a series of misrepresentations about the science behind the effectiveness of masks in combating the pandemic,” reports CNN.

Oct. 18: Twitter removes Dr. Atlas’ tweet denigrating face masks because it violates the platform’s COVID-19 Misleading Information Policy, which prohibits sharing false or misleading content related to COVID-19 that could lead to harm.

Oct. 18: Appearing on CBS’ 60 Minutes, Dr. Anthony Fauci discusses the use of face masks: “The benefit of masks has been supported by evidence that, under certain conditions, the virus can travel more than the six feet suggested by social distancing guidelines. Tiny, aerosolized droplets can float, like cigarette smoke, across a room. Over time, without good ventilation, they can build up and pose a risk of infection. Research shows a mask can reduce that risk.”

Dr. Atlas and “Herd Immunity”

The “Great Barrington Declaration” calls for allowing the coronavirus to spread naturally to achieve so-called “herd immunity” — the theoretical point at which enough people have been infected to stall transmission in the community. The declaration urges that those who are not vulnerable, such as younger Americans, should resume normal activities, while those who are at high risk protect themselves from infection. But it offers no method for implementation, and it would produce a disastrous surge in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, unknown long-term side effects and perhaps as many as one million American deaths.

Oct. 5: The authors of the Great Barrington Declaration meet with Dr. Atlas and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. In a subsequent email to The Hill, Dr. Atlas says that he supports the declaration, saying, “Their targeted protection of the vulnerable and opening schools and society policy matches the policy of the President and what I have advised.”

Oct. 15: Eighty doctors, public-health professionals and medical researchers co-sign a public letter warning that the so-called herd-immunity approach is a dangerous fallacy. By Oct. 18, more than 2,000 colleagues add their signatures to the letter as a show of support.

Also on Oct. 15: Appearing on Fox, Dr. Atlas touts the Great Barrington Declaration, saying, “We just had a declaration written and the thrust of the declaration is exactly aligned with the president, that is opening schools, opening society, and protecting the high-risk people, the seniors.”

Also on Oct. 15: Dr. Fauci condemns the strategy of herd immunity: “If you let infections rip as it were and say, ‘Let everybody get infected that’s going to be able to get infected and then we’ll have herd immunity.’ Quite frankly that is nonsense, and anybody who knows anything about epidemiology will tell you that that is nonsense and very dangerous.” 

He goes on to explain that the Great Barrington Declaration “assumes people who are vulnerable to serious illnesses live in facilities like nursing homes where they can be protected, but “that doesn’t work.” Dr. Fauci notes that “roughly one-third of the population is prone to developing serious side effects from COVID-19,” including the elderly, the obese and those with underlying health conditions, and not all of those people live in institutional facilities. “By the time you get to herd immunity, you will have killed a lot of people that would’ve been avoidable,” he said.

Dr. Fauci adds that Dr. Redfield and Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force coordinator, share his view. “All three of us are very clearly against that,” he says.

Also on Oct. 15: Appearing on CNN, the head of the World Health Organization’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit confirms, “Herd immunity as an approach by letting the virus circulate is dangerous, it leads to unnecessary cases and it leads to unnecessary deaths.”

Oct. 19: On a phone call with his re-election campaign staff that also includes reporters, Trump blasts Dr. Fauci. “People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots — these people, these people that have gotten it wrong,” Trump says. “If I listened to him, we’d have 500,000 deaths,” and then adds seconds later, “If we listened to him, we’d have 700-800,000 deaths right now…And yet, we keep him…Every time he goes on television, there’s always a bomb, but there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him.” Then Trump issues two tweets attacking Dr. Fauci, one of which refers to his errant first pitch at the Washington Nationals’ opening day baseball game.

Trump’s earlier attacks are the reason that, since April, Dr. Fauci has needed an armed security detail as protection from Trump supporters who are threatening him and his family.

The Trump-Atlas Strategy

Dr. Atlas has aided and abetted Trump efforts to confuse the public and discredit the nation’s leading infectious disease and public health experts. Minimal testing, no face masks and an ethically dubious and impractical effort to achieve herd immunity is not a strategy for combatting COVID-19. It’s a plan for unconditional surrender.

Read all installments of Steven Harper’s Pandemic Timeline.

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