Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who was appointed to the White House Coronavirus Task Force after his Fox News appearances captured President Donald Trump's attention, has “consolidated his power over the government’s pandemic response,” The Washington Post reported Monday. Atlas seized control from Dr. Anthony Fauci and other government experts on public health and infectious diseases, and he has derailed their efforts to slow the spread of the virus.
This is what governance by Fox News looks like. The White House plucked a purveyor of the network’s coronavirus happy talk from its green room, and his view has overwhelmed those who have actual expertise on the subject -- with potentially disastrous results.
Trump watches hours of Fox each day, engrossed by the network’s confirmations of his biases and indulgences of his impulses. As the virus hammered the U.S. during the spring, Fox hosts denounced public health officials like Fauci, who warned against prematurely ending the measures adopted to slow its spread. At the same time, the network propped up Atlas, who had no expertise in pandemic response but added a medical credential to its hosts’ message that the virus wasn’t that dangerous and the government should prioritize reopening the economy. That was exactly what Trump wanted to hear, and so Atlas was added to the White House ranks in August.
Despite a lack of qualifications in public health or infectious diseases, Atlas now dominates the task force, according to the Post’s report. The direction in which he steered the federal response amounts to a Cliffs Notes version of Fox’s programming since the pandemic began. He scuttled efforts to expand testing and “advanced fringe theories, such as that social distancing and mask-wearing were meaningless,” all regular elements of the right-wing network’s coronavirus commentary that defy the recommendations of experts.
What happens when you run a pandemic response based on Fox talking points rather than scientific expertise? “The result has been a U.S. response increasingly plagued by distrust, infighting and lethargy, just as experts predict coronavirus cases could surge this winter and deaths could reach 400,000 by year’s end,” the Post reports.
And things can still get much worse. Atlas has “has pushed a baseless theory inside the task force that the U.S. population is close to herd immunity — the point at which enough people become immune to a disease either by becoming infected or getting vaccinated that its spread slows — despite a scientific consensus that the United States is nowhere close.”
According to the Post:
Atlas publicly contradicted [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert] Redfield last month, telling reporters that more of the population was protected against the virus because of so-called T-cell immunity, in which people with exposure to previous coronaviruses — such as the common cold — have T cells that also protect them against covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
No credible scientific study has proved this theory, and Atlas’s advocacy of it dismayed other task force officials.
On that basis, he has argued within the task force that “all restrictions should be lifted, schools should be opened and only the most vulnerable populations, such as nursing home residents, should be sheltered.”
That strategy could trigger a massive death toll as the virus rips through the population -- and Trump is also hearing about its virtues from his television. Atlas pitched the idea in a June interview on Fox’s The Story. And supposed coronavirus “T-cell immunity” has been referenced on at least seven editions of sometime Trump coronavirus adviser Laura Ingraham’s Fox show. In September, the host and her guest, the cardiologist Dr. Ramin Oskoui, who has also advised Trump on the pandemic response, criticized Fauci’s skepticism of the concept. “Apparently, he doesn't read any of the medical literature that you and I and the medicine cabinet have been talking about on air for months now,” Ingraham commented.
Fox’s unprecedented power over federal policy has been a hallmark of the Trump administration, with the network’s influence rising over the last 18 months as Trump sloughed off restraining forces. The coronavirus proved the greatest test of Trump’s presidency -- and with the stakes at their highest, he relied on the network’s advice more than ever. Fox hosts dictated the pandemic response through their shows and in meetings with Trump and his top advisers, until they finally managed to place one of their own within his ranks.
The result has been a calamity: Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead, the economy is in shambles, and the virus is still out of control.
Update (10/19/20, 12 p.m.): This post has been updated with additional information.