This is a story about a U.S. House of Representatives select committee’s investigation — but not that House committee’s investigation.
While one committee in the House has been publicly reporting on findings from its investigation of the January 6th insurrection, another select committee (technically a subcommittee) has been much more quietly investigating another disaster: the federal government’s initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This month, they issued the first of several reports about what they have learned in the past two years. With so much other news, though, it has mostly gone unnoticed.
“The Select Subcommittee’s investigation has revealed extensive evidence of the Trump Administration’s efforts to undermine the nation’s public health response to the coronavirus crisis in an attempt to benefit the former president politically,” said Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), chairman of the subcommittee, in a statement. “This dereliction of duty resulted in significant loss of life that could have been prevented.”
In addition to Rep. Clyburn, the subcommittee includes six other Democratic and five Republican Congresspeople. The group has investigated activities of senior officials in the Trump administration, and its first report is laser-focused on the consequences of efforts by one man: Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no infectious disease expertise who was working at a conservative think tank when the pandemic began. Not long after, he was named special advisor to the president, who saw him on Fox and had been impressed.
As early as March 2020, Atlas was a vocal opponent of any measure to rein in the spread of the virus. He reached out to Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, on March 21 that year, “arguing that the federal government’s pandemic response was ‘a massive overreaction’ that was ‘inciting irrational fear’ in Americans,” the report says. He predicted at the time that Covid would lead to 10,000 deaths.
While Atlas’s opinions were contrary to the consensus view of scientists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease experts, they were welcomed by an administration eager to downplay the pandemic, the House subcommittee found. But apparently even White House officials were aware that Atlas’s contrarian views might not go over well with others: according to the report, Jared Kushner hired Atlas in July 2020 but deliberately concealed that for several weeks. Kushner told Atlas not to announce himself on conference calls he joined, for instance, and to hide his White House identification card when meeting with at least one other member of the pandemic response team.
In addition to encouraging the scientifically unfounded concept of achieving herd immunity through deliberate mass infection — an idea that had already received “widespread rejection … by the mainstream scientific community,” the report says — Atlas also actively worked to reduce testing among the public. According to a memo obtained by the subcommittee, Atlas argued that widely available testing “sets up an unattainable goal that is harming this president.”
“New evidence obtained by the Select Subcommittee shows that Dr. Atlas set in motion significant changes to CDC’s testing guidance within days of arriving in the White House that would upend CDC’s public health recommendations by minimizing the need for widespread testing and undercutting policies that could mitigate the spread of the coronavirus,” the report says.
Those efforts had the desired effect. According to testimony from Deborah Birx, who served during that time as White House coronavirus response coordinator, the CDC guidance changed by Atlas in August 2020 led to a “dramatic decline of the number of tests performed during the end of August and the beginning of September.” Eventually, the CDC reversed course and went back to the previous guidance recommending testing.
In addition, Atlas told White House officials, inaccurately, that masks were not effective, and that this was supported by research studies, according to the report.
“With Dr. Atlas’s influence fully entrenched, the Trump White House did little to attempt
to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the fall and winter of 2020 and early 2021—even
as outbreaks surged across the country,” the subcommittee reports. “With Dr. Atlas providing a veneer of scientific backing for inaction to protect public health, the Trump Administration instead focused on downplaying the threat of the virus leading up to the November presidential election.”
Birx told the subcommittee “that more than 130,000 American lives could have been saved after the first wave of the pandemic if President Trump and his Administration had implemented ‘optimal mitigation across this country,’” the report adds.