‘We Want Them All Infected’: HHS Distances Itself From Trump Appointee Who Repeatedly Pushed For ‘Herd Immunity’


‘We Want Them All Infected’: HHS Distances Itself From Trump Appointee Who Repeatedly Pushed For ‘Herd Immunity’

Written by Jemima McEvoy A British-born reporter covering breaking news for Forbes
Dec 16, 2020, Article Originally posted by Forbes

TOPLINE

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has sought to distance itself from one of the agency’s former advisors—personally installed by President Trump—who the results of a watchdog investigation published Wednesday show repeatedly advocated for allowing millions of young and middle-aged Americans to become infected with Covid-19 over the summer in a push for the HHS to pursue a controversial “herd immunity” strategy.

Alex Michael Azar Jr. (/ˈəzɑːr/; born June 17, 1967) is an American politician, attorney and former pharmaceutical executive who serves as the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services. Azar was nominated to his post by President Donald J. Trump on November 13, 2017, and confirmed by the United States Senate on January 24, 2018. He was also Chairman of the White House Coronavirus Task Force from its inception in January 2020 to February 2020, when he was replaced by Vice President Mike Pence.

KEY FACTS

Emails made public on Wednesday by the House committee overseeing the government’s pandemic response show that Paul Alexander—who was installed by President Trump in April to lead the HHS’ communications efforts—wrote to his higher-ups multiple times throughout June and July arguing that there is “no other way” to tackle Covid-19 except establishing “herd immunity” by allowing non-risk groups to expose themselves to the virus. 

“Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk,” wrote Alexander in a July 4 message to his boss, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo, saying “we want them infected” to help “develop herd.”

Similarly, on July 24, Alexander wrote to the Food and Drug Administration’s Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Associated Commissioner for External Affairs John Wagner and numerous top HHS officials arguing that it “may be best to open up the flood zone and let the kids and young folk get infected.” 

In the emails, Alexander also acknowledged that the Trump administration was aware its policies would increase the spread of Covid-19, urged HHS staff to release more “positive statements” in support of the administration’s pandemic response and cast blame on scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci for offering less rosy assessments of the situation, accusing them of trying to “make the president look bad.”

The published emails don’t include the replies from Alexander’s supervisors to his guidance aside from a skeptical—“How can this be researched and proven true or false?”—written by Caputo in response to a claim made by Alexander about herd immunity on a cruise ship. 

The HHS has previously disavowed herd immunity, with Secretary Alex Azar in October insisting it was “not the strategy of the U.S. government with regard to the coronavirus,” although the House watchdog pointed out that high-profile members of the administration on multiple occasions echoed the messaging promoted by Alexander soon after his emails were sent. 

The agency drew a thick line between itself and Alexander in a Wednesday statement to Forbes, saying “his emails absolutely did not shape department strategy” and emphasizing that he was a “temporary Senior Policy Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and is no longer employed at the Department.” 

CRUCIAL QUOTE 

“So the bottom line is if it is more infectiouness [sic] now, the issue is who cares? If it is causing more cases in young, my word is who cares…as long as we make sensible decisions, and protect the elderely [sic] and nursing homes, we must go on with life….who cares if we test more and get more positive tests,” Alexander wrote to senior HHS officials on July 3.

CHIEF CRITIC 

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the chair of the coronavirus subcommittee, said in a statement that the documents “show a pernicious pattern of political interference by administration officials,” which highlights why the HHS must cooperate with the House’s investigation. “As the virus spread through the country, these officials callously wrote, ‘who cares’ and ‘we want them infected,’” said Clyburn. “They privately admitted they ‘always knew’ the President’s policies would cause a ‘rise’ in cases, and they plotted to blame the spread of the virus on career scientists.”

KEY BACKGROUND 

“Herd immunity” is a term typically used to refer to vaccines, explained infectious disease and public health physician Dr. Mark Kortepeter in a Forbesarticle this September, noting: “The goal of achieving herd immunity is to vaccinate a high enough percent of the population to break the viral or bacterial chain of transmission between people.” Kortepeter, like many other public health experts, asserts that applying “herd immunity” to the context of mass infection is a dangerous notion due to the difficulty of protecting those at the highest risk, the long-term health consequences of Covid-19 and the fact that the virus is already running rampant. Alexander is not the only member of the Trump administration to advocate for this strategy. Since-departed White House coronavirus task force member Scott Atlas was an outspoken proponent of the theory, while President Trump himself has expressed public support for herd immunity on at least two occasions, saying during an August 31 interview: “Once you get to a certain number, you know—we use the word herd, right? Once you get to a certain number, it’s going to go away.” 

TANGENT 

The HHS announced Alexander’s departure on Sept. 16, days after Politico published a report on his efforts to interfere with the CDC’s weekly reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, labeling them “hit pieces on the administration.” 

FURTHER READING 

“An Infectious Disease Doctor Explains Why Striving For Herd Immunity From Covid-19 Is A Bad Idea”(Forbes)