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Report Shows Trump Administration Embraced Herd Immunity via Mass Infection

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Evidence has emerged that the Trump administration embraced a “dangerous and discredited herd immunity via mass infection strategy” prior to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, according to a new report from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Far-reaching support for the strategy likely contributed to many preventable deaths in the fall and winter of 2020 through 2021, the subcommittee said upon the release of the report, which is the first installment in what is expected to be a series on the Trump administration’s political interference with the federal public health response to the pandemic.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), chair of the subcommittee, said in a statement that an investigation “revealed extensive evidence of the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the nation’s public health response to the coronavirus crisis in an attempt to benefit the former president politically.”

“This dereliction of duty resulted in significant loss of life that could have been prevented,” Clyburn added. “We must honor those we’ve lost by bringing this shameful recent history to light and ensuring that it is never repeated — politics must never again be prioritized over the health and lives of the American people.”

The report noted that the Trump administration recruited Scott Atlas, MD, a radiologist with no background in infectious diseases to serve as an advisor on the response to COVID-19, adding that Atlas received unfettered access to the Trump White House, and became an influential voice pushing for herd immunity policies.

At Atlas’s urging, Trump administration officials promoted the herd immunity strategy with “deadly consequences,” according to the report.

Specifically, the report stated that Atlas pushed the Trump administration to change CDC guidance to limit the amount of testing conducted in the U.S., and undermined and politicized mask wearing as a mitigation tool, without proposing any alternate measures.

“Dr. Atlas’s stated reasoning for his dismissal of masks — that they were purportedly ineffective at mitigating transmission of the coronavirus — appears inconsistent with his pandemic strategy, which was premised on allowing the virus to spread rapidly among lower-risk individuals to facilitate disease-acquired herd immunity,” the subcommittee wrote. “Whatever his rationale, the anti-mask policy advocated by Dr. Atlas would have had — and did have — the same effect as the policies he advocated in connection with his open pursuit of a herd immunity strategy: enabling the virus to infect and kill many more Americans.”

“The concept of allowing herd immunity to develop via natural infection had a major consequence to it,” William Schaffner, MD, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, told MedPage Today. “Natural infection had the capacity to make very many people — older people, people with underlying illnesses, people who are immunocompromised — very, very sick.”

The price that’s paid for permitting a virus that is new to a population and capable of making people sick to spread through that population is a lot of illness, hospitalization, and death, he noted.

“That price is too high,” he added. “We don’t do that in public health. What we try to do is protect the weak, not expose them to illness and the risk of dying.”

Modern science can allow the concept of herd immunity in a very safe and effective way, through the use of vaccines, he pointed out, which ultimately “gets us to the same place, safely.”

The report also highlighted the fact that multiple vaccines and treatments are now available, but are rebuffed by many. The Trump administration “helped to lay the foundation for a wide swath of the public to persistently reject … vital tools to combat the virus, including coronavirus vaccines,” the subcommittee noted.

Neither the office of Donald Trump nor Atlas immediately returned MedPage Today‘s request for comment on the report.

  • Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.

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