President Trump’s newest coronavirus adviser is a former Stanford radiologist and health care policy specialist who advocates “safely” reopening the economy and schools now, a stance that puts him at odds with more cautious policymakers in California and even his own university, which this week backed off plans to offer in-person instruction this fall.
Member of the coronavirus task force Scott Atlas listens to US President Donald Trump during a briefing at the White House August 10, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Dr. Scott Atlas is the former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center and currently a health care policy fellow at the Hoover Institution, a right-leaning think tank at Stanford. He faced criticism in his first week on the job because he’s not an infectious disease expert, and from some in the Bay Area who called his approach to reopening “naive” and “dangerous.”
Atlas, who previously advised other presidential candidates, said Trump asked him to “help out.”
“Because of my combined medical science background as well as health policy background, and I think the way I can communicate in a logical way and translate that into something people can understand, I was asked to help out,” Atlas said in an interview with The Chronicle on Friday. “The job of somebody in health care policy is to have an impact on health care policy, not just to write papers, and because I want to help the country and I want to help the president both formulate the best policy and articulate the best way to the American people.”
Atlas said he and the federal government are taking a “data-based, strategic, tailored, targeted approach.” He told The Chronicle Friday that COVID-19 is very dangerous for high risk-individuals, mainly the elderly and people with other health conditions, and “not very dangerous” for low-risk people. He wants to protect the most vulnerable, while reopening schools and the economy “very safely,” although he didn’t explain in the 15-minute interview how that would be done.
“The goal of stopping COVID-19 cases is not the appropriate goal,” Atlas told Fox News on Aug. 3 during a conversation about college students. “The goal is simply two-fold, to protect the people who have a serious problem or die and to stop hospital overcrowding. There should never be and there never is a goal to stop college students from getting an infection they have no problem with.
“If there are high-risk college students, of course, we need to protect them,” he added. “And we need to protect professors.”
People who are elderly and have other health conditions are significantly more likely to get seriously sick and die from the virus: Eight out of 10 coronavirus-related deaths in the country have been among adults 65 or older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But infection rates among young people are skyrocketing, and although they’re less likely to suffer severe outcomes, more are landing in the hospital. A new report by the CDC warned that infected young people without chronic conditions can still have long-term symptoms.
Children have even lower rates of infections and hospitalizations, with 8 out of 100,000 infected kids ending up in the hospital compared with 165 out of 100,000 adults, according to a recent CDC report. One in 3 kids hospitalized were admitted to intensive care units.
Children and youth can also spread the virus, with another study published in JAMA Pediatrics reporting that kids under the age of 5 can carry high viral loads.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Robert Siegel, also from Stanford, said that Atlas’ approach “is dangerous and his logic is faulty.”
“While his goals of protecting high-risk populations and avoiding overcrowding are laudable, his plan for achieving these goals is completely at odds with what is known about the epidemiology of this virus,” he said. “If we want to protect those who are most at risk we need to drive the prevalence as low as possible, preferably to zero. If we let the virus run rampant among those with a low risk of dying, others will die.”
Dr. George Rutherford at UCSF said Atlas’ approach is “naive,” citing data that showed as infection rates rose among young people in Florida, they did the same among the elderly.
“You can’t pick and choose. I think we know from Sweden that you can’t protect the elderly and let the infection run wild,” Rutherford said.
Sweden, which didn’t implement strict lockdown measures, experienced a high death rate and economic setbacks. Atlas denied that his approach is like Sweden’s and strongly rejected any suggestion that he, the president or the White House are promoting a “herd immunity” strategy. Herd immunity is achieved when a majority of the population gets infected and inoculated, slowing the spread of the disease among others. But to do that, between 60% and 80% of people would have to get COVID-19, according to experts, which could cause widespread death.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has taken a cautious approach to reopening, after more aggressive moves earlier this summer were followed by a sharp and steady increase in cases and deaths.
Atlas joined the White House team after the president’s recent criticism of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, infectious disease experts leading the administration’s coronavirus response. The new arrival said he complements them.
“I’m not hired to be an immunologist,” Atlas said. “There’s plenty of super talented people already here with that. … I’m not here to replace anyone, by the way, I’m here to work with people. These people are working their tails off 24/7 to do the right thing here.”
A Chicago native, Atlas has lived in Stanford since 1998. Atlas said that during his 25-year practice as a neuroradiologist across the country, he acquired knowledge in multiple disciplines, including infectious diseases, while working with other doctors. During the pandemic, he said, he’s been writing, researching and working with epidemiologists.
John Cogan, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who has known Atlas for about a dozen years, said Atlas is a “terrific colleague.”
“He’s very thoughtful, always willing to discuss policies and research, very collaborative, very open-minded, very engaging,” Cogan said. “He’s a very careful researcher. His conclusions invariably come from his analysis and he doesn’t go beyond what can be confidently concluded from the data and analysis.”
Atlas on Friday pointed to shortened hospital stays and progress on vaccines as reasons to be “cautiously optimistic.”
“I don’t think the American people want to be afraid,” he said. “They want to understand what’s going on.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Dr. Atlas as a current Stanford radiologist.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Catherine Ho and Erin Allday contributed to this report.