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Who's The President's New Coronavirus Adviser? What's His Plan For Managing Pandemic?


President Trump's newest doctor advising him on the COVID-19 pandemic is raising some eyebrows. Dr. Scott Atlas comes from a conservative think tank. He has no background in infectious diseases, and some of his ideas are worrying scientists who do. Joining me to discuss Dr. Atlas and his plan for managing the pandemic, we have NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hey, Tam.


KELLY: And our science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel, hey to you.


KELLY: So who is Dr. Atlas? Let's start with his background, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Well, he was a radiologist at Stanford. And according to folks who've worked with him, his scientific expertise is really around medical imaging - so you can think about, like, MRI machines, CT scanners, things like that.

KELLY: Not viruses.

BRUMFIEL: Not at all.

KELLY: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: And, you know, in the early 2000s he joined the Hoover Institution, this right-wing think tank over at Stanford. And he's focused mainly on health policy, and in particular, he's been critical of Obamacare. And he's promoted free market solutions to America's health care issues.

KEITH: And after the outbreak started, he became a Fox News regular, attacking the lockdown, saying America needs to reopen. Kids should go back to school. That seems to be where Atlas caught the president's attention.

KELLY: Yeah. We've actually got a little bit of tape of him talking. This is Scott Atlas back in April. He was on "The Steve Deace Show." That is a conservative talk show.


SCOTT ATLAS: Those who are not at risk to die or have a serious hospital-requiring illness - we should be fine with letting them get infected, generating immunity on their own. And the more immunity in the community, the better we can eradicate the threat of the virus.

KELLY: Geoff Brumfiel, he says we should be fine with letting them get infected. Am I hearing that right? Is he saying some people should just get sick with COVID?

BRUMFIEL: Yes. So, again, this was back in the spring, but he was advocating for an approach that's called herd immunity. And the idea is that if the virus infects enough people and those people are then immune, it will kind of end up running out of places to spread and burn itself out. Now, Atlas doesn't want to open up completely. He's advocated for letting the virus spread in the population while isolating the oldest and most vulnerable Americans so that they don't get sick and die.

KELLY: What do public health experts have to say about this?

BRUMFIEL: They say this is an incredibly dangerous and risky approach. First, it's very difficult to isolate one group of people from society, especially when you consider the CDC estimates about half of the American population has some kind of risk factor for COVID complications. And then the second problem is COVID can make young people really sick even if it doesn't kill them. So CDC data indicates roughly a third of COVID patients from 18 to 34 suffer long-term health effects. There's also reports of strokes and more serious complications, though the data isn't quite clear on how common that is. So you talked to a public health expert like Ashish Jha at Brown University, and he's going to tell you it doesn't matter how old you are. People should not be getting COVID - period.

ASHISH JHA: I am not so cavalier as to say, it's fine. You might have longstanding lung damage. You might have longstanding heart damage. But hey; at least you won't die. It's OK.

BRUMFIEL: Now, I should say in a statement to NPR, Dr. Atlas has said that he never advised the president. He hasn't advised officially the pursuit of the herd immunity strategy.

KELLY: Tam, fact-check that first. Do we know if that's true? I mean, there are other ways of influencing the president without directly advising him to do something.

KEITH: Yeah. What I can tell you is that if you listen to President Trump talk, he is mirroring Atlas' language very closely. Listen to what President Trump said at the White House briefing last month. He said you shouldn't focus on how many people come down with COVID.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Far more important is who the virus is infecting. That's why our strategy and attention are focused on preventing the cases that are most likely to require hospitalization or result in death.

KEITH: Tam, just dig into this a little bit. What is it that President Trump is hearing in Dr. Atlas' approach that he likes?

KEITH: It validates President Trump's impulses on how to handle coronavirus. Atlas puts a lot more emphasis on the economy and the mental health value of returning to normal than the infectious disease experts that have been around the White House and advising the White House. Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci - their focus has been on containing the disease, and now Trump has someone with a doctor in front of his name who can help him push his idea that things need to get back to normal even before there's a vaccine. The way a White House spokesperson described it to us is that Atlas' role is integrating medical science and health policy. And then the person added, we already have health and infectious disease experts.

KELLY: To that point about the push to get things back to normal, I think a lot of us would like to get things back to normal. Geoff Brumfiel, we are in the midst of not just an unprecedented public health crisis but an economic crisis. Businesses everywhere are still shut. Schools are closed all over the country. Is there an argument that policymakers do need to be thinking about more than just public health, more than just the science?

BRUMFIEL: So here's the thing. I mean, this is really about lockdown, shutting down schools and the economy. Public health experts don't want to do that. They don't want lockdowns. Ashish Jha of Brown University, he told me the solution isn't to let this virus run out of control.

JHA: Actually, the way you improve the economy is by controlling the virus. That's what we have seen in other countries. South Korea's economy is doing much, much better than ours because they controlled the virus.

BRUMFIEL: And, you know, when you don't control the virus, what happens? You get a surge. Right now in Europe, in France and Spain, we're seeing spikes in COVID cases because they opened up so quickly. So there's economic risks to opening and ignoring public health.

KELLY: Well, let me circle this back to Dr. Scott Atlas. And I suppose the big question on my mind is, how influential is he? How much access does he have to the president and his thinking, Tam?

KEITH: Yeah. I called up conservative economist Stephen Moore, who has advised the White House through the pandemic and also before. And he said that Atlas is an influential voice in the White House these days.

STEPHEN MOORE: I think I speak for a lot of free market people who've been really frustrated by the lockdowns that his voice is really very welcome combating some of the nonsense that comes out of Fauci. I think he's a real asset to the president.

KEITH: As far as Fauci goes, he was asked yesterday about the concept of herd immunity on MSNBC. And he emphasized that it is not the approach he is taking, nor Dr. Birx, nor, quote, "any of the other people that I know on the task force." There was a meeting of the coronavirus task force yesterday. The White House posted pictures afterwards, and both Fauci and Atlas were there in the room.

KELLY: All right. Thanks to both of you for your reporting. That is our White House correspondent Tamara Keith and our science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "VENTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Geoff Brumfiel
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.