By now, two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans have realized that pandemic-era restrictions were ineffective and overly punitive. Scientific studies have shown that blockages and mask mandates were considerably less effective in preventing the spread of COVID and deaths than public health officials claimed. A poll showed that only 44% of Americans trust what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is saying about COVID-19, a surprising number for an agency supposed to represent science. And even after most Americans have been vaccinated, government officials continue to attorney for pandemic restrictions that have no scientific justification.
Dr. Scott Atlas, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and former adviser to the White House coronavirus task force, saw this coming.
The new book of Dr Atlas, A Plague on Our Home: My Fight in the Trump White House to Stop Covid from Destroying America, chronicles his time on the White House Coronavirus Task Force and is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how unelected public health bureaucrats took control of the pandemic response and implemented irrational policies with disastrous consequences for the public. Dr. Atlas emerges from the book as one of the only voices of reason on the coronavirus task force frequently warning others (to little reception) that overly restrictive pandemic restrictions would do more harm than good.
Much of the book targets three bureaucrats in particular: Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx (the former White House COVID task force coordinator), and Robert Redfield (then CDC director). Dr. Atlas calls these three officials the “troika” and he highlights through a series of anecdotes how Fauci, Birx and Redfield ignored science, indulged in fear and enjoyed near limitless authority to define the COVID-19 policy. The result? Unnecessarily restrictive federal health recommendations and policies that have lasted until today.
From Atlas’ experiences, it’s clear that Fauci and Birx behaved like a dictatorial duo, silencing dissent from those who questioned their recommendations as they proposed a series of increasingly radical policies. . As Atlas explains, the task force had three simple priorities at the start of the pandemic: finding a vaccine as quickly as possible, flattening the curve to avoid hospital overcrowding, and increasing the supply of PPE. However, public health officials such as Fauci and Birx quickly moved toward a sweeping zero-COVID approach aimed at “eliminating positive tests in people with no symptoms and very little risk of serious illness.”
According to Atlas, “No matter what the president himself said, the vice president and the political team … feared Fauci and Birx, who held extremely high political approval. It was a de facto license, allowing them to formulate and then communicate what the public would hear as policy recommendations from the administration. It’s a stunning revelation, and it’s hard to imagine another moment in American history when two unelected officials wielded this level of authority over administration policy.
Birx, in particular, used this authority to devastating effect. An example: school reopenings. Extended school closures have been one of the worst policy missteps of the entire pandemic. Data since spring 2020 has shown that the risk of COVID to healthy children is extremely low; Moreover, at that time and afterwards, dozens of studies from around the world, from Japan to Sweden, have shown that children are extremely unlikely to transmit the virus. Yet schools across the United States remained closed, resulting in unfathomable learning loss and worsening mental health for millions of children. Dr. Atlas had access to these studies and presented them to the working group. But when he did, Birx responded by saying, “There is a bell curve of epidemiologists, and you [Dr. Atlas] are on the margins. She then demanded that the rest of the task force agree with her assessment that the school closures were necessary. Birx’s blatant disregard for objective scientific evidence is shocking and shows how the stubbornness of a small group of public servants has affected the fate of millions of American schoolchildren.
As for Robert Redfield, Dr. Atlas devotes an entire chapter to chronicling the missteps of the former CDC director. For context, Redfield is the man who, in congressional testimony, famously affirmed that “this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine”, it’s hard to imagine a more inaccurate claim, and the fact that it comes from one of the health officials the nation’s most powerful public speaks to the general level of incompetence displayed by the CDC during the pandemic. In anecdote after anecdote, Atlas explains how Redfield made a series of grossly inaccurate claims, about everything from antibody testing to vaccine rollout, and then used the media to defend himself when challenged. When Atlas attempted to clarify basic scientific facts that Redfield had been wrong, Redfield responded by stating that “Everything Scott Atlas says is wrong”, an attack that was later reinforced by Dr. Fauci.
Redfield’s characterization of Atlas as someone who constantly made false claims is completely at odds with that of Dr. Atlas. identifiers. Dr. Atlas has been a full-time health policy researcher at the Hoover Institution for more than a decade and was previously a world-renowned medical scientist, researcher, and clinical physician for more than 25 years. Dr. Atlas was uniquely qualified to anticipate the broader impacts of pandemic politics and he recommended sensible policy interventions that would not go overboard, unlike Fauci, Birx and Redfield. But Redfield wasn’t the only one to decry Dr. Atlas’ work: During his tenure on the task force, Stanford University’s Faculty Senate Posted a resolution condemning Atlas, an extraordinary action against free speech by the faculty of a leading research university.
Dr. Atlas’ experience demonstrates that the free exchange of ideas has been relentlessly strangled during the pandemic by academics and members of the White House coronavirus task force. Ultimately, Atlas concludes that the Trump administration’s deference to Fauci and Birx will have lasting consequences because of the “anti-science recommendations” they released to the press and public. After reading the stories in A plague on our house, it’s easy to see that Fauci, Birx and Redfield were rarely on the side of science. Instead, time and time again, they have actively ignored scientific evidence in favor of consensus, a dangerous phenomenon the Review has previously written about.
A plague on our house is basically an account of how the trust between public health officials and the American people has been shattered during the pandemic. First came an irrational obsession with achieving zero COVID and implementing draconian policies such as closing schools that had no empirical basis. Then, when people began to challenge these policies, public health officials used incorrect projections and inaccurate studies to justify them. When those policies turned out to be wrong, public health officials refused to accept responsibility for their actions and failed to admit their mistakes.
Readers will find A plague on our house shocking. Fauci, Birx and Redfield have caused irreparable harm to the country with their irrational rhetoric and exercised their authority unabashedly. Unelected public health officials should never be responsible for deciding the future of millions of Americans, but that’s exactly what the Troika did. And Dr. Atlas’ warnings must be heeded for the next public health emergency. Otherwise, the country will once again pursue overly restrictive policies that do more harm than good and public trust in science will be further undermined.