In the three months since President Donald Trump made Dr. Scott Atlas — a radiologist, not an epidemiologist or specialist in infectious diseases — his favorite source of ideas on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the United States has been racked with a record-setting third surge of virus cases, with record daily deaths expected in coming days. The president, his wife and youngest son have all been infected, as well as his eldest son, who lives elsewhere. The president had to be hospitalized. And White House gatherings became “superspreader” events. It is hardly a coincidence the pandemic got worse after Atlas captured Trump’s ear.
Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, came to Trump’s attention in Fox News appearances when he said what Trump wanted to hear — questioning the importance of wearing masks, flatly opposing state lockdowns and suggesting that the threat posed by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was limited to the elderly, the sick and the immuno-compromised.
With the country at a crossroads and pandemic deaths soaring past 250,000, Atlas may be at his most dangerous: Now he’s taking on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Nov. 16, he urged Americans to carry on with their Thanksgiving gatherings with this blithely fatalistic remark on Fox News: “For many people, this is their final Thanksgiving, believe it or not. What are we doing here (by calling on people to stay home)?”
This prompted a scathing response from former CDC Director Tom Frieden, one of many health officials urging quiet holidays this year. “It may well be the last Thanksgiving for many of our loved ones if we follow this bad advice,” he tweeted about Atlas. “We can PREVENT deaths from COVID. Unless we change our plans, family celebrations over Thanksgiving could mean funerals by New Year’s.”
CDC’s Dr. Erin Sauber-Schatz, citing the million-plus new cases the U.S. is seeing a week, said it remained profoundly risky to spend significant time indoors with even a handful of visiting family members. “The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is at home with the people in your household,” she said. The federal government’s two most prominent pandemic fighters — Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx — not only agree, NBC News reported that they had chosen to shun Atlas because nothing was to be gained by working with a nonexpert with no relevant background who challenges public health orthodoxy at every turn.
For one example of the danger posed by Atlas to Americans, Trump has for months emphasized the Atlas theme that the declining rate of COVID-19 deaths shows how good the administration’s pandemic response has been. Instead, the rate of deaths has gone down as doctors and researchers have figured out ways to slow COVID-19’s progression and keep patients off ventilators.
But the disease’s health consequences remain devastating. The Mayo Clinic warns that a significant number of people who had a brush with COVID-19 suffer symptoms for months after that lead to long-term health problems with the lung, heart and brain — a point Trump and Atlas never acknowledge. Think of them and their families.
No matter how eager we all are for traditional holiday experiences built around our extended families, please think twice. If you must gather, heed the CDC and have celebrations outdoors and practice social distancing. Don’t heed the radiologist who may know a lot about CT scans and MRIs but whose prominence in the pandemic response is solely because he reinforces President Trump’s denial of the seriousness of the worst U.S. public health crisis in more than a century. Let’s all be thankful for promising vaccines, hope for their quick and safe arrival, and pray that Jan. 20 arrives and a sense of urgency is restored at the White House without tens of thousands more Americans dead. The need to approach the coming holidays with a sense of shared sacrifice is clear. We and our nation must rise to the occasion.
©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune