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Atlas departure from White House cheered by public health officials

Atlas departure from White House cheered by public health officials
© getty: Scott Atlas

The exit of Scott AtlasScott AtlasUPDATED: McEnany, Fox News talks on pause Birx: Someone was delivering a 'parallel set of data' on coronavirus to Trump Overnight Health Care: Trump admin makes changes to speed vaccinations | CDC to order negative tests for international travelers | More lawmakers test positive after Capitol siege MORE from the White House coronavirus response task force comes at the pandemic’s worst point, with 170,000 new cases reported every day and deaths and hospitalizations increasing with no signs of stopping. 

It’s a departure being cheered by many in the public health world, who saw Atlas’s advice to the president as dangerous and anti-science.

“His resignation came not too soon, I mean, my goodness, he is somebody who spread more disinformation, confusing misinformation, than almost anybody out there,” Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health, said Tuesday on “The View.” 

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“I think all of us were just shocked that this guy who knew so little about this topic, had the ear of the President. And so I think all of us are feeling a sense of relief that he is out,” Jha added.  

During his 130-day White House tenure, Atlas, who is not an expert on infectious diseases, pushed a “focused protection” response to the pandemic that his counterparts argued was really just a herd immunity approach that would spiral the pandemic out of control. 

Atlas gained influence partly due to his strong defenses of Trump on Fox News, and joined the administration over the summer as a special government employee, which comes with a 130-day detail.

He butted heads with Deborah BirxDeborah BirxCNN's Brianna Keilar calls out Birx 'apology tour' Biden to name nurse as acting surgeon general: report Birx: Someone was delivering a 'parallel set of data' on coronavirus to Trump MORE, the task force director, and Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: Biden takes steps to boost number of vaccine doses sent to states | CDC researchers find 'little evidence' of major school outbreaks, with precautions | Eli Lilly says antibody combo significantly cuts COVID-19 death risk Biden takes steps to boost number of vaccine doses sent to states World surpasses 100M coronavirus cases MORE, the government’s top expert on infectious diseases, who warned the pandemic was hurtling toward a deadly and dark winter.

He even came under repeated criticism from a coalition of professors at Stanford, who periodically issued statements in opposition to Atlas, a fellow at that university’s conservative Hoover Institute. The group of Stanford professors praised the news of his exit Monday as “long overdue.” 

“His actions have undermined and threatened public health even as countless lives have been lost to COVID-19,” the letter stated. 

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Atlas’s exit from was greeted with approval among some of his current and former colleagues within the administration, who had raised concerns about his rhetoric on the virus, which often contradicted what Birx, Fauci and others were saying.

“There was certainly relief,” one former administration official said of Atlas’s exit.

Atlas had become a favorite among conservatives who balked at government-imposed regulations to slow the spread of the virus. He took a victory lap on Fox News on Monday night in an interview with Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden EPA asks Justice Dept. to pause defense of Trump-era rules | Company appeals rejection of Pebble Mine | Energy pick Granholm to get hearing Wednesday Company appeals rejection of controversial Pebble Mine  McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism MORE, decrying what he described as the politicization of science. 

“There's a bigger issue here and that is that America and its universities really need to allow, without attack, without rebuke, without intimidation, the free exchange of ideas because it is from the free exchange of ideas that scientific truths follow,” he said. 

Atlas previously advised Republican presidential campaigns in 2008, 2012 and 2016 and advocates for less government involvement in health care. 

At the Trump White House, he argued for a hands-off approach to the pandemic that often ran counter to advice from public health experts, by questioning mask mandates, widespread testing, restrictions on businesses and other efforts aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. 

“My advice was always focused on minimizing all the harms from both the pandemic and the structural policies themselves, especially to the working class and the poor,” Atlas wrote in his resignation letter.

He was heavily criticized last month when he tweeted that Michiganders should “rise up” against new COVID-19 restrictions announced by Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerThe Hill's Morning Report - President Biden, Vice President Harris begin work today Michigan GOP pushes to replace member who voted to certify election results Is the spread of misinformation MLK's dream? MORE, the target of a thwarted abduction scheme that was led by people angry with her restrictions on businesses and activities.

Atlas faced the most backlash when he endorsed what he described as a “focused protection” response that called for protecting the elderly from COVID-19 while letting younger, healthier people who are at lower risk for becoming seriously ill resume their normal lives.

His critics — most mainstream public health experts, the World Health Organization, Fauci, and others — said such a strategy basically amounted to herd immunity and would result in needless deaths and suffering.

Atlas frequently went toe to toe with Fauci, accusing him of working to undermine the president. 

“I think, you know, once you do that sort of thing and make yourself a political animal, basically, you lose your credibility,” Atlas said on Fox News in November.

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In September, he questioned Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert RedfieldRobert RedfieldCDC gets a second opinion: Seven steps to heal our COVID-19 response Pence delivers coronavirus task force report to Biden Overnight Health Care: Testing capacity strained as localities struggle with vaccine staffing | Health workers refusing vaccine is growing problem | Incoming CDC director expects 500,000 COVID deaths by mid-February MORE’s testimony to Congress that the vast majority of Americans remained susceptible to the coronavirus.

Both Fauci and Redfield are on record distancing themselves from Atlas.

Despite his differences with some of the government’s leading health officials, Atlas’s exit is unlikely to change the trajectory of the pandemic response for the remainder of the Trump administration. 

Other officials, such as White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, often offer similar messages decrying “lockdowns” and questioning governors who impose stringent measures to slow the spread of the virus.

Very few states or localities have imposed lockdowns at the levels seen in the spring, but it has become a rallying cry for conservatives who think the government should not impose restrictions on businesses or order closures, even as the virus rages across the U.S.

Trump has shown little interest in the worsening pandemic in the weeks since he lost the election to Joe BidenJoe BidenDobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' Should deficits matter any more? Biden's Cabinet gradually confirmed by Senate MORE, even as the U.S. records hundreds of thousands of cases each week. He has instead focused most of his public comments on baseless claims about voter fraud.

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The president’s few references to the pandemic have been about vaccine development, including urging the Food and Drug Administration to move quickly to approve candidates. On Tuesday, he shared a tweet suggesting an emergency medical unit set up in Nevada to deal with virus patients was fake.

President-elect Joe Biden has signaled he will rely on career officials such as Fauci to guide his pandemic response after Trump largely shunned them in favor of loyal aides who downplayed the severity of the virus.

Biden has already convened a team of experts to advise him on COVID-19 and has received briefings on the pandemic from government agencies. His advisers have publicly dismissed the idea of reverting to the lockdowns seen in the spring, but have recommended more targeted restrictions or closures of businesses like restaurants and bars that contribute to virus spread while keeping schools open. 

The Biden-Harris transition team has reportedly made contact with both Fauci and Birx as it prepares to take office in January.