Atlas, health officials feuds add to Trump coronavirus turmoil
The feuds between White House coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas and top public health officials are raising more questions about President Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Atlas, a Stanford University neuroradiologist without experience in public health, first joined the White House coronavirus task force this summer after appearing frequently on Fox News.
He has come under fire from public health experts inside and outside the administration who accuse him of feeding Trump misinformation.
They argue public health agencies are already facing a public confidence crisis and that Atlas’s influence is undermining those agencies even further.
“The only qualification he has is that he parrots what President Trump wants to hear. To me, that makes him doubly dangerous,” said Mark Rosenberg, who ran the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control from 1994 to 1999.
“Scott Atlas is pushing away the good advice of people like Tony Fauci and replacing it with absolutely baseless and misguided bad advice that will result in more people dying,” added Rosenberg, referring to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci.
Like Trump, Atlas has publicly questioned the value of doing more testing and has said pandemic restrictions amount to “panic.”
Atlas has argued that even if low-risk people get infected with COVID-19, it won’t lead to more deaths. He has also pushed to minimize the impact of the coronavirus on children as a way to reopen schools, a key goal for the Trump administration.
Atlas has seen his role in the administration grow.
Trump has invited Atlas to speak to the public and answer questions from reporters at recent White House news conferences about schools reopening, COVID-19 testing and other events.
Noticeably absent have been Fauci, task force coordinator Deborah Birx and CDC Director Robert Redfield.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews said Trump is not playing favorites.
“The President consults with many experts both inside and outside of the federal government, who sometimes disagree with one another,” Matthews said in a statement to The Hill.
“President Trump relies on the advice and counsel of all of his top health officials every day and then makes policy decisions based on all of the information. Any suggestion that their role is being diminished is just false,” Matthews said.
A former White House official said Atlas has benefited in recent weeks from being able to speak directly with Trump, who has shown he likes hearing what Atlas has to say.
“I don’t know that having fresh eyes every now and then is so harmful in and of itself,” the former official said. “I think it’s a question of unadulterated views stated as fact, mano a mano can be a problem.”
In recent days, Trump and Atlas have publicly attacked Redfield and the CDC. Rosenberg said that sends confusing messages to the public about who to trust in the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of the public that is starting to doubt and question what comes out of CDC. And now you have someone like Scott Atlas, saying that the director of CDC is wrong, the CDC guidance is wrong … he’s adding to the confusion. He’s making it harder for people to trust the science, or for them to know what the truth is,” Rosenberg said.
Last week, Atlas stood at the White House podium and publicly contradicted Redfield’s congressional testimony that 90 percent of the U.S. population remains vulnerable to the coronavirus.
In a heated exchange with a reporter who noted the contradiction between officials, Atlas responded, “You’re supposed to believe the science, and I’m telling you the science.”
The tensions between Redfield and Atlas boiled over when Redfield was reportedly overheard by an NBC News reporter talking to a colleague about Atlas and his role in the administration.
“Everything he says is false,” Redfield said, according to NBC.
In a statement to The Hill, a spokesman for the CDC did not deny that the conversation took place and acknowledged Redfield and Atlas have “different positions” on three specific issues: the value of wearing a mask, youth COVID-19 infections and “where we are currently with herd immunity.”
Atlas has argued that the science of mask-wearing is uncertain and reportedly pushed the CDC to publish a recommendation that asymptomatic people who have been exposed to the coronavirus don’t need to get tested.
Atlas has also been a proponent of herd immunity.
“When you isolate everyone, including all the healthy people, you’re prolonging the problem because you’re preventing population immunity,” Atlas said in a Fox News radio interview in July. “Low-risk groups getting the infection is not a problem. In fact, it’s a positive.”
Fauci has also expressed concern over the influence Atlas has over Trump.
When asked in a CNN interview on Monday if he was concerned Atlas was giving Trump misleading info, Fauci did not mention Atlas by name.
“I am concerned that sometimes there are things that are said that are really taken either out of context or actually incorrect,” Fauci said.
Later in the interview, Fauci said he had differences with Atlas but declined to say they were in conflict.
“You know my differences with Dr. Atlas, I’m always willing to sit down and talk with him and see if we could resolve those differences,” Fauci said.
Fauci said most of the scientists in the administration are working together, but: “I think you know who the outlier is.”
Brett Samuels contributed.
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