As communities across the U.S. scramble to treat COVID-19 patients, White House adviser Scott Atlas has been actively pushing back against state measures to control the recent uptick.
His downplaying of the threat of the virus is nothing new. But the timing has left officials working on the federal government’s coronavirus response fuming and desperate for his ouster.
According to multiple officials familiar with the matter, Atlas has recently pushed White House officials to find ways to prevent states from introducing what he sees as needless and restrictive stay-at-home orders, social distancing guidelines and mask mandates. Officials said Atlas views any action that limits gatherings, including holiday celebrations, as a reversal of the reopening playbook he helped install this summer—a strategy that many prominent health experts point to as one of the reasons the U.S. is in its current predicament.
“He's a destructive force,” one senior official said, adding that Atlas’ recent messaging is getting in the way of efforts to save lives as the country waits for a vaccine to become available to the general public. “I mean, at this point, I don't know how else to explain what he's doing. It's really disruptive.”
Officials who spoke to The Daily Beast for this story say they are concerned about the degree to which Atlas still maintains influence over President Donald Trump’s thinking about COVID-19. Especially as his public utterances have grown more sharply political.
On Monday, Atlas tweeted a response to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new coronavirus mandate—which severely limited indoor gatherings for the next several weeks—by encouraging people to “rise up” against it
“You get what you accept.” he added.
Atlas later insisted that he was not encouraging any form of insurrection against the governor, who has been the target of a kidnapping attempt over her COVID policies. But in Lansing, the walk-back wasn’t convincing.
“If the Trump administration wants to do something good that would actually help save lives before he leaves office, he could pick up the phone and call Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi and pass a COVID relief plan that’ll help our small businesses, restaurants and schools,” said a spokesperson for Governor Whitmer’s office. “Everything else is just noise and distraction from the important work we need to do together to keep people safe and save lives.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Atlas said he has “always supported the president’s guidelines of safe reopening, including supporting what states and local jurisdictions determine for their own communities.”
Atlas’s influence over the direction of the federal government’s COVID response has consistently been a source of controversy owing to his lack of background on infectious diseases and the unorthodox way he got the president’s attention: mainly, TV hits. But his current attempts to block additional mandates stands out, health officials say, for their sheer recklessness—putting American lives at risk at a time when the country is reporting a record number of new cases and hospitalizations and worrying daily death rates.
In the last week alone, the virus has infected more than 1 million people and killed on average 1,000 people a day. And this situation is about to get far worse, according to health experts, as individuals prepare to spend more time indoors due to the holidays and colder weather.
This is not the first time officials working on the coronavirus response have sounded the alarm on Atlas. This fall, they also warned that in conversations with Trump he was advocating a default “herd immunity” policy, in which the federal government protected the most vulnerable while allowing the virus to spread throughout the country and infect millions of others. Atlas flatly denied it but officials said it was merely a game of semantics; that his approach has resulted in more death and infection.
Officials have also pushed back on Atlas’ resistance to adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing and masks. In a call with the nation’s governors Monday, CDC Director Robert Redfield said despite the fact that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would likely reach a critical mass in the next several months, “it is important to double down on what we can do now.”
“The bottom line is masks do work,” Redfield said. It’s important to raise that social distancing works as does washing hands, avoiding crowds. And these need to be fully implemented right now. It’s going to be a difficult time in the weeks ahead as cases rise.”
While Atlas has continued to push back against much of the conventional wisdom around combatting COVID, states across the country have struggled to manage a third wave of the pandemic. Data collected by the government shows most of the states in the heartland and throughout the Midwest have been categorized as “hotspots” and are experiencing soaring hospitalization numbers which have overcrowded rural and regional healthcare facilities and resulted in massive staffing shortages.
After weeks of Trump falsely claiming that the country was rounding the corner on the pandemic, the aftermath of the election has seen a slew of statewide leaders throwing together new restrictions as the pandemic rages on worse than ever in their communities.
“I think it's a very challenging situation (nationally) with the case rates as high as they are and they're so much higher than they were back in the springtime," said Dr. Eric Adkins, an associate professor of emergency medicine and critical care medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
For some Republican governors, the spike in COVID cases has prompted a re-evaluation and change in their policy positions.
After throwing the state wide open in September, Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska put in place new restrictions last week over concerns about a spike in hospitalizations in the state. If things get worse, Ricketts promised additional restrictions, though he remains resistant to a state-wide mask mandate.
In Oklahoma, the state’s tumbling public health situation caused Gov. Kevin Stitt to require masks for state employees and order restaurants and bars to be closed to the public by 11 p.m. Stitt still won’t embrace a mask mandate.
Breea Clark, a Democrat serving as the mayor of Norman, Oklahoma, said the coronavirus situation in the state was “spiraling out of control.” But while her community has benefited from a local mask order that was put in place in July, she was critical this week of Stitt not adopting one too. There's no pressure coming from the president when it comes to a mask mandate, Clark said, which helps give the governor cover.
“I feel like again they've bought into this mentality about masks for so long, he can't possibly backtrack even though it is the right thing to do,” Clark said of Stitt, “and it's just really unfortunate that his pride appears to have gotten in the way of doing the right thing and saving lives in our state.”
And in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds went a step further with a narrow statewide mask order for indoor public areas under certain conditions. That concession came after months of resisting a statewide mask requirement behind the mantra of believing people in her state would do the right thing. Among other moves, she is also telling bars and restaurants to shut down in person service each night by 10 p.m.
“I think it is a step towards what I feel needs to be a strong mask mandate statewide,” said Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, with the Democrat admitting that he didn't feel it went far enough. “It's headed in the right direction but it needs to be stronger and it needs to be sooner.”
Democratic-led cities have also jumped to taking more aggressive action in recent days. Last Thursday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the city announced a stay-at-home advisory as the city also put in place restrictions that capped “meetings and social events,” to 10 people, according to the city’s website.
A sense of alarm could also be felt in Philadelphia as the city’s health commissioner warned during a press conference Monday about the potential of exceeding hospital capacity in the city by the time 2020 comes to a close. Officials there also rolled out a series of “Safer at Home” measures, according to the city’s website, which starting Friday, include a ban on indoor eating for restaurants and the closure of movie theaters and gyms.
“As we’ve experienced through every phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reactions to the City’s latest restrictions have been mixed,” Lauren Cox, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said in an email. “We understand how difficult the past eight months have been, but until we get COVID under control, we must continue to prioritize saving lives.”