Dr. Scott Atlas resigned from the White House coronavirus task force on Monday after months of advocating against social distancing policies and disputing the medical consensus around COVID-19. A frequent Fox News guest, Atlas was reportedly a deeply controversial presence even among some other members of the pandemic team.
They may have been breathing private sighs of relief on Monday, but Atlas’ former colleagues at Stanford University went public with their celebration.
“Dr. Scott Atlas’ resignation today is long overdue and underscores the triumph of science and truth over falsehoods and misinformation,” dozens of Stanford faculty, including top infectious disease experts, said in a public statement.
“His actions have undermined and threatened public health even as countless lives have been lost to COVID-19. We will continue to advocate for evidence-based public health policies that are grounded in established science, including the use of proven preventative measures like mask-wearing and social-distancing, and the safe testing and delivery of effective therapies and vaccines.”
Atlas, a favorite of President Donald Trump who falsely claimed that masks do not work, became synonymous with Trump’s neglectful response to the pandemic after the president named him to the coronavirus task force in August. As COVID-19 cases and deaths surged in the United States, Atlas advocated for a less restrictive government response ― an approach that appealed to the desire of Trump and other Republicans to downplay the virus and lift lockdown measures.
Like many Trump picks, Atlas caught the president’s attention with his numerous hard-charging spots on conservative media. During his Fox News appearances in the early months of the pandemic, he pushed a consistent message that the government should ignore public health experts in favor of policies that usually required doing less and reopening more. In a typical appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show in early May, Atlas claimed that it was far too late in the pandemic to create contact tracing programs similar to those being used in multiple other countries.
“It’s simply illogical and impossible to do contact tracing. There’s no reason to have contact tracing as a predicate for reopening,” Atlas said.
He denied any need for widespread testing, stating on May 7 that only certain groups such as health care workers required screening for COVID-19. On Fox News host Brian Kilmeade’s radio show, Atlas disputed scientific studies that supported the wearing of masks and stated in recent months that the “data is unclear on masks.” He repeatedly flirted with the idea of pursuing “herd immunity” ― letting the coronavirus spread until enough of the population became infected and developed resistance to the virus ― although he has denied advocating such a policy.
Once he got to the White House, many medical experts, as well as other members of the task force, criticized Atlas ― who is a neuroradiologist and not an epidemiologist or immunologist ― for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus and essentially telling Trump what he wanted to hear.
“Everything he says is false,” Dr. Robert Redfield, a coronavirus task force member and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was overheard remarking on Atlas in September.
Atlas’ former colleagues at Stanford ― where he was part of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank ― put out an open letter in September criticizing his role on the White House task force. Nearly 100 faculty members, including epidemiologists and a former dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, stated that Atlas’ views undermined the work of credible health officials and researchers.
“To prevent harm to the public’s health, we also have both a moral and an ethical responsibility to call attention to the falsehoods and misrepresentations of science recently fostered by Dr. Scott Atlas,” the faculty members said in that open letter.
In response, Atlas took the unusual step of threatening legal action against his former colleagues. Through a lawyer, he accused them of malicious defamation and warned them to retract their statement. The signatories instead published responses accusing Atlas of trying to silence important criticism of dangerous public health policy.
“We are more than a little surprised that Dr. Atlas has chosen to waste his time on this matter. He is a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and an advisor to President Trump. The decisions that he is involved in making are literally life and death matters for the people of this nation,” Roberta A. Kaplan and Josh Matz, attorneys for the group of Stanford academics, wrote to Atlas’ lawyer in a letter also made public.
“If he cannot tolerate science-based criticism of his opinions and statements concerning this public health crisis, then he has no business advising anybody, let alone the President of the United States,” they argued.
Stanford further distanced itself from Atlas in November after he tweeted that “people get what they accept” and that Michigan residents should “rise up” to oppose coronavirus restrictions implemented by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had been the target of a recently foiled terror plot by anti-lockdown extremists. Stanford issued a statement saying that “Dr. Atlas’s statements reflect his personal views, not those of the Hoover Institution or the university.”