News Release

Report: Trump Era Covid Strategy “Likely Resulted in Many Deaths”

Last week, the congressional Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a report on the Trump administration’s embrace of a herd immunity strategy via mass infection in the second half of 2020 and first months of 2021. The report details how the strategy was promoted by Dr. Scott Atlas while he was a Special Advisor to the President and that it “likely resulted in many deaths that would have been prevented by an effective national mitigation strategy.” 

BILL HANAGE; please direct media requests to Nicole Rura at nrura@hsph.harvard.edu 
    Hanage is an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

MALLORY HARRIS, contact via Twitter DM @malar0ne
    Harris is a PhD candidate in biology at Stanford. 

The report is the first installment of the Select Subcommittee’s findings “showing that the Trump Administration’s political interference was rampant and degraded every major facet of the nation’s public health response during the first year of the pandemic.” Hanage told the Institute for Public Accuracy today that “there will be much more to be written on this sorry period, but this [report] is an eye-opening start.”

Hanage said the report “depicts crucial missteps in pandemic management and the way they came about… This was achieved by appointing the likes of Dr. Scott Atlas [in July 2020], who had no relevant experience in infectious disease but did have a history of making scientifically unfounded statements belittling the severity of the pandemic. 

“The Select Subcommittee reports new evidence that in March 2020, Dr. Atlas was in contact with officials claiming that Covid would lead to about 10,000 deaths in the United States. That milestone was in fact passed within a few weeks… Dr. Atlas was not in any position to provide expert guidance to forecast the course of the pandemic or produce a sustainable pandemic management strategy. He did, however, provide cover in the form of a medically qualified individual prepared to support the chosen policies of the administration: policy-based evidence, if you will, instead of evidence-based policy.” In particular, Atlas successfully pressed the administration to weaken and reduce testing and undermined and politicized mask-wearing. 

Hanage added: The report offers “important insights into how ‘herd immunity’ strategies came to dominate the conversation and become a major––if unstated––component of the U.S. response to the pandemic prior to vaccination.” Justin Feldman, a social epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, also notes that these strategies have essentially been taken up by Democrats and the Biden administration this past year. 

Hanage said: “In the simplest epidemiological models, in which recovered individuals have lifelong immunity against future infection, epidemics eventually burn themselves out once they’ve exhausted the supply of available hosts––a point which is referred to as the ‘herd immunity threshold.’ A small minority of scientists proposed that enough infections in relatively low-risk individuals would allow this to be attained, and for society to then reopen once the virus had burned itself out. The difficulty is that the virus would not be expected to be eliminated by such a strategy, and there was (and is) no evidence that recovery from Covid-19 produces durable protection against future infection. So seeking herd immunity through infection would only defer the danger to older/high risk individuals, at the cost of significant morbidity (and mortality) in the young.” 

Harris has also followed how professors and scientists, especially from Stanford and including Atlas, were able to shape federal and state policies on the basis of data that was unsupported by the rest of the scientific community. Here, she details how the Great Barrington Declaration and Atlas influenced federal policy. Harris told the Institute for Public Accuracy today that it is not “new information that [these professors] were in direct contact with the federal government,” but that the report “gives us a better sense of the extent of [their activities]” as well as the extent to which Atlas had access to top officials in the White House.” Harris said that it has been “frustrating to see the name of the university” used to leverage Trump’s policies, in contrast with the public health policies that the majority of experts on the Stanford campus support.