That this metric has been so steady, falling in a range of 1.5 percent to 2 percent on 90 percent of days since then, suggests that not much has changed in our ability to combat the virus over the past four months. Yes, the number of deaths as a function of recorded cases is down from the spring. But it’s still steady, a grim shackle from which the country can’t shake free.
This is the subtext to Trump’s repeated insistences that the country is “rounding the corner” on the virus, an assertion so detached from reality that it’s simply laughable. It’s the chief of the local fire department insisting that a house fire was nearly out because it was burning itself out. Sure, he could have some trucks come and spray water on it, but why? It’s going away on its own.
On Wednesday, the Daily Beast reported that those working within the White House now see this as the overt strategy embraced by Trump: let it burn through the population, increasing the number of people with immunity and, therefore, slowing the virus’s spread. It would be an utterly shocking report were it not for one thing: Trump’s integrated an embrace of a so-called “herd immunity” strategy into his public comments for months.
Back in April, when the president was heeding the advice of the government’s experts on combating the virus, such as the country’s chief epidemiologist, Anthony S. Fauci, the message from the White House was one of rejecting the idea that the virus should simply be allowed to spread.
At briefing April 6, for example, Fauci specifically stated that he hoped “we don’t have so many people infected that we actually have that herd immunity.” It was a time for optimism by the experts, though, with the country having voluntarily shuttered normal economic activity to control the virus. In the same briefing, Fauci expressed optimism that the country wouldn’t hit the “100- to 200,000 deaths” projected by the task force as a best-case scenario.
A few days later, Trump was asked about the approach taken by Sweden, which was overtly to allow the virus to spread among less-vulnerable populations in the hopes of achieving herd immunity.
“I think we could have followed that approach,” Trump said. “And if we did follow that approach, I think we might have 2 million people dead.”
This was near the peak of Trump’s embrace of his experts’ advice. Soon, another instinct would take over: a rush to turn the economy around before the presidential election in November. He and his team announced benchmarks states could hit to scale back containment measures — and Trump then proceeded to call for states to reopen regardless of whether they’d hit those marks.
By late May, he was pushing hard for more economic activity to resume. As part of his argument, he specifically downplayed the risk posed to young people by the virus, cracking open the door of embracing “herd immunity.”
“We’ve learned that young people do very well. Very well. Incredibly well,” he said during a speech in Michigan. “Older people, especially older people that have problems, they don’t do well at all. So we have to protect those people. And we want to get everybody now safely back to work. And we’re going to do that.”
This became something of a mantra: protect the elderly, worry less about younger people. On May 29, he said that explicitly.
“We’ve [had] a very powerful strategy on nursing homes for quite a while,” he said at a White House event focused on the economy. “The best strategy for public health is to aggressively protect the most vulnerable while allowing younger and healthier Americans to work safely.”
That “work safely” is not an overt embrace of herd immunity, which calls for allowing infections among less vulnerable populations. But intentionally increasing risk for some groups isn’t far from that mark.
As summer approached, Trump’s political rhetoric shifted from reopening the economy to reopening schools.
“The best strategy to ensure the health of our people moving forward is to focus our resources on protecting high risk populations like the elderly and those in nursing homes,” he said in early June, “while allowing younger and healthy Americans to get back to work immediately and open up our schools, open them up.”
During a speech July 3, Trump introduced a new claim: 99 percent of cases were “totally harmless.” This isn’t true, but it was useful as an argument for not worrying about new infections and, therefore, for reopening schools.
The White House held an event July 7 specifically focused on school reopenings. Among the attendees was Cathy Slusher, an OB/GYN who offered her thoughts on the pandemic.
“The other thing that I, as a physician, am a strong believer in is herd immunity,” she said. “And what I’m not proposing is that we put all of our students in a big vat and only the survival of the fittest come out antibody-positive. I’m not saying that.” But, she continued, “ … we need to have the interaction that helps to get that immunity so that we can protect our vulnerable, and we can protect our elderly, and we can protect those younger folks with comorbidities because we’ve got a society that is immune to the virus and we can put the virus back in its place.”
No one pushed back on her advocacy. Trump, during comments which preceded Slusher’s, simply noted that “this is a disease that’s a horrible disease, but young people do extraordinarily well.”
As has usually been the case over the course of his presidency, Trump’s rhetoric on reopening schools was bolstered by conservative media, especially Fox News. On that network, a regular guest — a doctor even — repeatedly leveraged his professional title to support Trump’s arguments.
On June 29, that neuroradiologist, Scott Atlas, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show on the network. He presented the surge in new cases that was then beginning as a good thing.
“We expected more cases with more social mingling. And, of course, as your show and others have seen, we had a lot of social mingling in the last few weeks,” Atlas said. “And with that social mingling, we’re going to see more cases. By the way, with more testing, we’re going to detect more cases.”
“But the fact is, the overwhelming majority of these cases are younger, healthier people,” he continued. “These people do not have a significant problem. They do not have the serious complications. They do not die. And so it’s fantastic news that we have a lot of cases but we don’t see deaths going up. And what that means is that, A, we’re doing a better job protecting the vulnerable. B, we’re in good shape here.”
“We like the fact that there’s a lot of cases in low-risk populations because that’s exactly how we’re going to get herd immunity,” Atlas said. “Population immunity.”
Carlson asked him why some people wanted to keep schools closed.
“I’ve said before,” Atlas replied, “it’s hard to understand people who think irrationally.”
By early August, Atlas had been plucked off Trump’s television and into the White House. Soon, the president began talking about immunity as a desired outcome.
On Aug. 11, Trump called for colleges to play football in the fall.
“These are young, strong people,” he said. “They won’t have a big problem with the China virus.” (In reality, doctors have found signs that infected athletes might suffer long-term heart damage.)
“We want to see college football start,” Trump continued, “and, hopefully, a lot of great people are going to be out there. They’re going to be out there, playing football, and they’ll be able to fight it off. And hopefully, it won’t bother them one bit. Most of them will never get it, statistically. But we know we’ll see more cases at some point, and we will eventually develop sufficient immunity, in addition to everything else that we’re doing.”
Emphasis added. The next day, Trump introduced Atlas at a coronavirus task force briefing.
Soon, the media began reporting that Atlas was advocating for an embrace of herd immunity. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked about it during a news briefing.
“The herd immunity so-called theory was something made up by the fanciful minds of the media,” she insisted. “That was never something that was ever considered here at the White House.”
Less than two weeks later, though, Trump told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that it might be a natural path toward the resolution of the pandemic.
“We’re going to be okay,” Trump said of the virus during a town hall event, “and it is going away. And it’s probably going to go away now a lot faster because of the vaccines. It would go away without the vaccine, George, but it’s going to go away a lot faster with it.”
“It would go away without the vaccine?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Sure, over a period of time,” Trump replied. “Sure, with time it goes away —”
“And many deaths,” Stephanopoulos interjected.
“You’ll develop herd — like a herd mentality,” Trump replied, apparently meaning herd immunity. “It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen. That will all happen. But with a vaccine, I think it will go away very quickly.”
“Herd immunity has never been a strategy here at the White House,” she said. “The president last night was noting herd immunity is over a period of time. A country, a society, can reach herd immunity. It’s a fact. It was not a strategy ever presented here at the White House.”
Atlas was also asked about it during a briefing later in the month.
“I have never advocated a herd immunity strategy,” he said. “There’s never been a desire to have cases spread through the community. That’s a false story. I’ve denied that multiple times. And I just don’t — that false story doesn’t seem to die. But that’s a fact.”
A week later Trump himself was confirmed to have contracted the virus. He briefly went to the hospital, emerging with a newfound sense both that the virus was something minor and that he had achieved the immunity he’d been speaking about. It’s not clear how long any such immunity might last, one of the flaws of a herd-immunity strategy, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from telling the crowds at rallies that he was going to go around kissing them now that he was immune.
“I didn’t even have to go in [to the hospital], frankly,” Trump said in a Fox Business interview Oct. 8. “I think it would’ve gone away by itself. 99.9 percent below a fairly substantial age has no problem. I mean, they can get it, they can feel a little sick but they don’t die and the tiny percentage of senior citizens and all.”
During the second presidential debate, he made a similar claim about how low the impact of the virus might be.
“I recovered,” he said. “99.9 [percent] of young people recover. 99% of people recover. We have to recover. We can’t close up our nation. We have to open our school and we can’t close up our nation, or you’re not going to have a nation.”
None of this is explicit in embracing herd immunity — but the difference between telling people that the risk is low and to resume normal activity and embracing the idea that people should just be resigned to contracting the virus is small.
“Don’t be afraid of Covid,” Trump wrote on Twitter as he prepared to leave the hospital, referring to covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. “Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge.”
Telling Americans not to fear the virus isn’t the same as telling them to contract it, but it is also a message you’d promote if you thought herd immunity was the best path forward.
On Oct. 19, The Washington Post published an extensive look at the role Atlas played in shaping the direction of the government’s coronavirus response.
Atlas “advocated allowing infections to spread naturally among most of the population while protecting the most vulnerable and those in nursing homes until the United States reaches herd immunity, which experts say would cause excess deaths, according to three current and former senior administration officials,” we reported.
Speaking the following day to the ironically named publication Unherd, Atlas indicated that he was “disgusted and dismayed” by such criticism.
“What they mean by ‘herd immunity strategy’ is survival of the fittest, let the infection spread through the community and develop a population immunity,” he insisted. “That’s never been the policy that I have advised. It’s never even been discussed inside the White House, not even for a single minute. And that’s never been the policy of the president of the United States or anybody else here. I’ve said that many many times.”
What did he advocate instead?
“My advice is exactly this. It’s a three-pronged strategy,” he said. “Number one: aggressive protection of high risk individuals and the vulnerable (typically the elderly and those with co-morbidities). Number two: allocate resources so that we prevent hospital overcrowding, so that people can be treated for this virus and get the other serious medical care that is needed. Number three: open schools, society and businesses because keeping them closed is enormously harmful — in fact it kills people.”
He doesn’t advocate unchecked spread of the virus (despite his repeated dismissal of the utility of wearing face coverings). He just thinks the best strategy is to protect the vulnerable while resuming normal activity — and bolstering hospitals to deal with an inevitable surge in patients.
It’s important to note that the government is only actually doing one of those things, the one about opening the economy. It has not effectively reduced the number of deaths in nursing homes. Hospitals are currently being overwhelmed in Texas and the Mountain West.
Since the day Atlas was introduced at the White House on Aug. 12, 3.6 million more people have contracted the virus and more than 64,000 more people have died.
The number of deaths since that day is 1.8 percent of the number of new cases.