One of President Donald Trump's most visible and most controversial COVID-19 advisers resigned Monday after his opinions generated months of headlines and sustained criticism from federal health officials and his colleagues in academia and medicine.
Dr. Scott Atlas, who routinely made eyebrow-raisingly false and misleading statements about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) during his three-month stint advising Trump, announced his resignation on Twitter.
“I worked hard with a singular focus—to save lives and help Americans through this pandemic,” Atlas, 65, wrote in his resignation letter to Trump, which The New York Times reported had been expected because his temporary role advising the federal government was set to expire this week.
“I always relied on the latest science and evidence, without any political consideration or influence,” wrote the former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center. (Many of Atlas' detractors noted his background is not as an infectious disease expert.)
Atlas and the White House did not respond to requests for further comment on Tuesday.
While Atlas officially worked as a "special adviser" to the president, his views on the coronavirus pandemic were at odds with those of many other government health experts, including members of the White House's coronavirus task force.
Atlas repeatedly stressed the importance of protecting vulnerable people from the virus while also undermining or pushing back against preventative measures widely supported by other doctors, in particular when balanced against the lockdown consequences.
Atlas questioned the effectiveness of wearing masks, for example — which experts have routinely said is an easy, effective preventative step — as well as argued falsely that children don’t spread the coronavirus and routinely backed Trump’s call to end economic restrictions, which are meant to slow the spread of the virus that has killed more than 260,000 people in the U.S.
Like the president, Atlas argued that in many ways the threat from the virus was being overstated because many younger and healthy people were not really in danger while at-risk populations could be isolated.
Health experts say this position simplifies the reality of infection, as healthier people and children can still spread the virus and because even healthy people and kids can experience serious issues that require vigilance.
Atlas has also written approvingly of the concept of "herd immunity" in which a majority of a population would likely need to be infected in order to drastically slow the virus further — a strategy that one group of scientists called a "dangerous fallacy" when applied to the coronavirus.
"The reality is that when a population has enough people who have had the infection, and since these people don’t have a problem with the infection, that’s not a problem. That’s not a bad thing," Atlas said on Fox News in June, according to The New York Times.
(Atlas later said in a radio interview in September, however, that "there’s never been any advocacy of a herd immunity strategy coming from me to the president, to anyone in the administration, to the task force, to anyone I’ve spoken to.")
In October, Atlas spoke skeptically of widespread testing and isolation of asymptomatic coronavirus cases, which would help track and contain further infections, telling the Times: “The overwhelming majority of people who get this infection are not at high risk. And when you start seeking out and testing asymptomatic people, you are destroying the workforce.”
Atlas also made headlines in mid-November when he called for Michigan citizens to “rise up” against the state’s coronavirus restrictions, which was slammed as inflammatory and dangerous amid violent threats made against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In October, the FBI said it thwarted a kidnapping plot targeting Whitmer.
She told ABC News Atlas' comment was “incredibly reckless," while Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert and a task force member, told the Today show, "I don't want to say anything against Dr. Atlas a person but I totally disagree with the stand he takes."
Atlas tweeted to clarify that he would "NEVER" endorse or encourage violence and was referring to peaceful protests and voting.
There had been other points of friction: Fauci, 79, and Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force's two leading infectious disease experts, “basically said they will not work with him,” one senior administration official told NBC News in mid-November.
Because of that friction, according to NBC, Atlas had not attended a task force meeting since September.
"It’s been a couple months since Atlas attended a task force meeting," a source familiar with the situation told PEOPLE on Tuesday.
“I have real problems with that guy,” Fauci told The Washington Post about Atlas in October. “He’s a smart guy who’s talking about things that I believe he doesn’t have any real insight or knowledge or experience in. He keeps talking about things that when you dissect it out and parse it out, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Atlas had taken a leave of absence from his role as a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute in order to serve in the Trump administration.
“He has many great ideas,” the president said at a coronavirus briefing in August, according to the Times. “And he thinks what we’ve done is really good, and now we’ll take it to a new level.”
Stanford distanced itself from Atlas after his remarks about Michigan’s COVID-19 restrictions, saying in a statement then that “Dr. Atlas has expressed views that are inconsistent with the university’s approach in response to the pandemic.”
On Monday, his Stanford colleagues said in another statement that Atlas’ resignation was “long overdue and underscores the triumph of science and truth over falsehoods and misinformation," according to Reuters.
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