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Image: Alex Azar
Alex Azar during a briefing at the White House on Aug. 23, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP

Why it matters when Team Trump listens to herd-immunity advocates

Not everyone gets an audience with cabinet secretaries. So when the HHS chief chats with herd-immunity advocates during a pandemic it's worth asking why.


Not everyone gets an audience with cabinet secretaries. So when the head of the Department of Health and Human Services sits down with herd-immunity advocates, during a pandemic, it's worth asking why.

The Trump administration's health chief met Monday with a trio of scientists who back the controversial theory that the United States can quickly and safely achieve widespread immunity to the coronavirus by allowing it to spread unfettered among healthy people. The meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, which also included Trump adviser Scott Atlas, is the latest example of administration officials -- including the president himself -- seeking out scientists whose contrarian views justify the government's handling of a pandemic that has killed 210,000 people and infected nearly 7.5 million so far in the U.S.

As the Politico report noted, the discussion was behind closed doors, but after the meeting, Azar published a tweet that read, "We heard strong reinforcement of the Trump Administration's strategy of aggressively protecting the vulnerable while opening schools and the workplace."

The cabinet secretary added that the trio was comprised of "three distinguished infectious disease experts," each of whom, generally speaking, has voiced support for herd immunity.

Politico's article added, "Mainstream medical and public health experts say that seeking widespread, or herd, immunity in the manner the scientists prescribe could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or even millions more U.S. residents."

And yet, the idea appears to have gained favor from Donald Trump, probably because it would mean curtailing efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

It was just three weeks ago when the president participated in an ABC News town-hall event and said the coronavirus is "going away," even without a vaccine. When George Stephanopoulos was incredulous, the president added, "You'll develop -- you'll develop herd -- like a herd mentality. It's going to be -- it's going to be herd-developed, and that's going to happen. That will all happen."

While there was some laughter surrounding his use of the phrase "herd mentality," instead of "herd immunity," what mattered was the fact that Trump was describing a strategy in which the virus "goes away" by having much of the country get infected.

When Stephanopoulos said such a tactic would lead to "many deaths," the president ignored the observation and just kept talking.

Herd immunity has also been popular with Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist whom Trump saw on Fox News, and who was brought onto the White House team, despite the fact that he has "no expertise in public health or infectious disease mitigation," hasn't practiced medicine in nearly a decade, and has demonstrated a habit of echoing unscientific claims.

Yesterday, Atlas joined the HHS chief for the closed-door discussion.