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Atlas adds a critical missing element to coronavirus task force

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Scott Atlas was added to President Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force this month, and he quickly took center stage alongside the president. While he lacks the infectious-disease credentials of task force coordinator Deborah Birx, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Anthony Fauci or Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Atlas has a long history as a top health policy expert at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Perhaps even more important, he brings a fresh perspective to approaching the pandemic. 

Atlas was a senior health adviser for Republican presidential candidates in 2008, 2012 and 2016, as well as for members of Congress. At the Hoover Institution, he focuses on public-private partnerships in health care, innovation and the impact of biotechnology and incorporating economic factors to derive practical solutions. He is co-director of Hoover’s “Socialism and Free Market Capitalism: The Human Prosperity Project.”

He has appeared with me on “Doctor Radio Reports” on SiriusXM, where he presented himself as an anti-fear-monger, a non-alarmist who bases his views on logic and data. Nevertheless, his background as a non-virologist who is no longer seeing patients has left him subject to some media attacks. This seems completely unfair. There already are several respected virologists on the task force, but not enough health policy or public health experts.

Dr. Atlas is the editor of a leading textbook in the medical field, “Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain and Spine.” He ran Stanford’s neuroradiology department for many years and trained some of our country’s best radiologists. The critical thinking involved in that task is hardly irrelevant to assessing today’s pandemic. Keep in mind that, as a top neuroradiologist, Atlas was trained — and has trained others — to perform a sober analysis of an image based on complex pattern recognition; he has brought this ability to his career in health policy. The rationality needed to examine potential brain cancer without emotion also is essential to fight the fear and hysteria that has shrouded COVID-19. A great neuroradiologist can quickly tell you the difference on an MRI between a stroke and an abscess, or a malignant versus a benign tumor.  Since the results alter lives, the radiologist must be extremely meticulous.

One of Atlas’s peers and a colleague of mine agrees. “Throughout our friendship of more than 35 years, Dr. Atlas has always impressed with his strong expertise in analyzing public health challenges and developing concrete solutions that are based on science and data, the cornerstones of any legitimate response to COVID or other health issues,” says Robert I. Grossman, M.D., dean and CEO of NYU Langone Health and a fellow world-renowned neuroradiologist. Dr. Grossman believes Atlas “will contribute significantly to these efforts.”

With the same kinds of accuracy and precision as he has used in medicine and health policy, Atlas has helped to distinguish between burgeoning new case numbers of COVID-19 in Florida, Texas and California and the fact that the death rate has not been climbing. He has noted that children tend to have much milder cases and that our public health priority should remain to protect those most at risk. This analysis seemed prescient when, this past Monday, the number of new cases in Florida dropped to 2,678 with 87 deaths and, on Tuesday, new cases remained below 4,000. 

When it comes to masks, Atlas has echoed President Trump’s position that masks are especially important “if you aren’t able to social-distance or if you are in proximity to a high-risk individual.” The goal, according to Atlas, is “stopping the deaths by protecting the high-risk people. Preventing hospital overcrowding while you safely reopen society.” 

Recent studies have connected using masks with the decreased transmission of coronavirus in health care workers as well as in large populations, but this is still not complete proof. 

Though he, too, believes in masks, Atlas’s focus has been more about the excessive emotions in play, saying that masks have been “highlighted and sensationalized … way out of proportion.” This is a bold, relevant perspective.

In a larger sense, Atlas is concerned with the major role that fear has played in public messaging throughout the pandemic. “It’s stemming from a massive amount of fear bordering on hysteria. And this is a real problem because public policy is supposed to be taking into consideration not just stopping COVID-19 at all costs but understanding the impact on people of what you do and what you say. And that’s been a failure of some of the people who are speaking out on this … we need to live in a rational world, and we need to show people that we use critical thinking …. the reality is, there are reasons to wear a mask.”

Dr. Atlas has a calm approach, one that relies on data analysis and reasoning. And if he is accused of under-reacting, there is certainly plenty of saber-rattling around to balance him out. So far, he appears to be working well with the virologists, including Dr. Fauci and has done his best to integrate with the team.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @drmarcsiegel. 

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