Birx confronted Pence about Atlas
White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx recently confronted Vice President Pence about the increasing influence of Scott Atlas over the administration’s handling of the pandemic, a person familiar with the exchange confirmed to The Hill.
Birx raised concerns about the information Atlas was giving President Trump and suggested he be removed from the White House coronavirus task force. Atlas is not an infectious diseases expert but has emerged as one of Trump’s most influential advisers on the pandemic.
The exchange was first reported by The Washington Post, which said Pence asked Birx and Atlas to work out the strife on their own and to present data to their colleagues supporting their viewpoints.
Atlas advocates policies that put him at odds with the mainstream of infectious diseases experts and other health officials on the task force.
Most controversially, he praises the herd immunity strategy outlined in a document called the “Great Barrington Declaration,” which calls for allowing the virus to spread among lower-risk, younger people to build up immunity while having “focused protection” on older, high-risk people.
Many leading experts have denounced that approach as leading to hundreds of thousands of more deaths as the virus circulates freely. Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimated last week that the herd immunity strategy would lead to at least 500,000 more deaths.
Twitter also removed a tweet from Atlas over the weekend that questioned the effectiveness of masks, which are embraced by leading experts as a way to slow the spread of the virus. “Masks work? NO,” Atlas’s tweet began.
As Democrats push to expand testing in talks over a coronavirus response package in Congress, Atlas is also pushing back on the idea, saying testing should be focused on the vulnerable only.
“When you start seeking out and testing asymptomatic people, you are destroying the workforce,” Atlas told The New York Times.
Atlas has established himself as one of the most influential voices in the president’s ear on the pandemic, according to multiple current and former administration officials. Trump has in recent weeks cast doubt on the effectiveness of masks and railed against continued restrictions on economic activity to slow the spread of the virus.
Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield have both spoken out against Atlas and his ideas publicly or privately.
Redfield was overheard last month lamenting that “everything [Atlas] says is false” during a phone conversation on a flight.
Fauci last week called the herd immunity strategy embraced by Atlas “total nonsense.”
Asked about Atlas’s position and if the White House was open to herd immunity, Fauci did not mention Atlas by name but pushed back in an interview with Yahoo News last week.
“My position is known, Dr. Deborah Birx’s position is known, and Dr. Bob Redfield,” Fauci told Yahoo News, adding: “All three of us very clearly are against that.”
Experts say there is no way to fully protect the vulnerable if the virus is raging unchecked in the broader population.
Birx, a State Department official with an expertise on HIV/AIDS, was tapped to coordinate the White House coronavirus response in late February when there were just a few dozen confirmed cases in the United States. She was a regular fixture at White House briefings on the pandemic and appeared frequently on television to defend the administration’s response to the outbreak.
But White House officials grew irritated when Birx delivered data-heavy presentations in June and early July that undercut their preferred narrative that the situation in U.S. was improving, according to Olivia Troye, a former adviser to the task force who left her role in July.
Birx has been pushed aside at the White House, last appearing alongside Trump in early August. She has spent the last few months on the road, meeting with governors and university officials to advise them on their pandemic response and gather information on best practices.
She has joined Fauci, Redfield and Surgeon General Jerome Adams as public health experts who were prominent figures in the early weeks of the pandemic but who have been sidelined from public view even as the country sees rising case numbers and hospitalizations.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.