‘No Such Thing As No Risk,’ Atlas Says While Pushing Policy Experts Say Will Increase Death

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October 20, 2020 5:45 p.m.
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A top White House coronavirus adviser pushing to “reopen” the country with minimal COVID-19 restrictions explained Tuesday that there was “no such thing as no risk in life.” 

The laissez faire comments about COVID from White House adviser Scott Atlas came during an interview with journalist Freddie Sayers, the executive editor of the website UnHerd. 

“We cannot guarantee that we can protect everybody,” Atlas told Sayers when asked what policies could help protect elderly people living in crowded households if restrictions are largely removed. “There is no such thing as no risk in life.” 


Atlas has long advocated for largely doing away with COVID-19 public health restrictions, and has in the past promoted so-called “herd immunity,” or the concept of slowing a virus’ spread through a population by increasing the number of people who’ve been exposed to it, either naturally or through a vaccine. 

The idea has gained traction at the White House, even as government experts including, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have said the approach would “wind up with many more infections of vulnerable people, which will lead to hospitalizations and deaths.” 

Several signatories to a recent letter encouraging the development of herd immunity subsequently acknowledged to The New York Times that they didn’t know what sort of policies would help stem the risk such an approach would pose to the elderly and immunocompromised in the U.S. 

Atlas said Tuesday that herd immunity would be “a secondary gain” of the approach — the first being the reopening of schools and the resumption of regular medical care for Americans who may have been forced to skimp on things like chemotherapy in recent months.

But, aside from promoting social distancing and invoking the Trump administration’s testing efforts in nursing homes and senior centers, the White House adviser didn’t offer much concrete policy to protect vulnerable people in a “reopened” world. 

Atlas used the example of his 93-year-old mother-in-law, whom he said told him recently: “‘I’m not interested in being confined to my home. I’m not interested in living if that’s the life.’”

“This is somebody who’s totally independent,” Atlas added. “She said, ‘I’m old enough to take a risk. I understand social distancing. I’m going to function, otherwise there’s no reason to live.’” 

The White House adviser denied that he was pushing “herd immunity” as a strategy, calling it a “distortion” of White House policy and saying that critics have tried to paint his advice to Trump as “survival of the fittest.” He also downplayed his personal influence on Trump, noting the President has called to “reopen” society and cast aside certain public health protections for months. 

But the self-proclaimed “contrarian” has rapidly risen through the ranks of the Trump administration after joining the White House as an adviser over the summer. The White House’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx reportedly asked Vice President Mike Pence to remove Atlas from the White House COVID-19 task force and said he was not giving the President sound advice, The Washington Post reported

Atlas has no background in infectious disease — he wrote about health care economics and policy at the conservative Hoover Institution for years before joining the administration. He used to work and teach as a neuroradiologist, though he stopped treating patients in 2012. 

He also doesn’t have much of a track record to back up his relatively recent influence. In a March 31 interview, for example, Atlas said that “all reasonable numbers point to the fact that our number of severe outcomes will be peaking in around three weeks or so.”

In mid-May, when asked about a model that showed more than 137,000 people dying of the disease by Aug. 4, Atlas criticized “sensationalistic modulations of a hypothetical projection model.” Ultimately, according to Johns Hopkins, around 153,000 people had died of COVID-19 by that date. Today, roughly 220,000 Americans and counting have died of the viral disease.

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COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).
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