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A top Trump appointee repeatedly urged top health officials to adopt a "herd immunity" approach to Covid-19 and allow millions of Americans to be infected by the virus, according to internal emails obtained by a House watchdog and shared with POLITICO.
“There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD," then-science adviser Paul Alexander wrote on July 4 to his boss, Health and Human Services assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo, and six other senior officials.
"Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk….so we use them to develop herd…we want them infected…" Alexander added.
"[I]t may be that it will be best if we open up and flood the zone and let the kids and young folk get infected" in order to get "natural immunity…natural exposure," Alexander wrote on July 24 to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Caputo and eight other senior officials. Caputo subsequently asked Alexander to research the idea, according to emails obtained by the House Oversight Committee's select subcommittee on coronavirus.
Alexander also argued that colleges should stay open to allow Covid-19 infections to spread, lamenting in a July 27 email to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield that “we essentially took off the battlefield the most potent weapon we had...younger healthy people, children, teens, young people who we needed to fastly [sic] infect themselves, spread it around, develop immunity, and help stop the spread.”
Alexander was a top deputy of Caputo, who was personally installed by President Donald Trump in April to lead the health department's communications efforts. Officials told POLITICO that they believed that when Alexander made recommendations, he had the backing of the White House.
“It was understood that he spoke for Michael Caputo, who spoke for the White House,” said Kyle McGowan, a Trump appointee who was CDC chief of staff before leaving this summer. “That’s how they wanted it to be perceived.”
Senior Trump officials have repeatedly denied that herd immunity — a concept advocated by some conservatives as a tactic to control Covid-19 by deliberately exposing less vulnerable populations in hopes of re-opening the economy — was under consideration or shaped the White House's approach to the pandemic. “Herd immunity is not the strategy of the U.S. government with regard to coronavirus," HHS Secretary Alex Azar testified in a hearing before the House coronavirus subcommittee on Oct. 2.
In his emails, Alexander also spent months attacking government scientists and pushing to shape official statements to be more favorable to President Donald Trump.
For instance, Alexander acknowledges in a May 30 email that a draft statement from the CDC about how Covid-19 was disproportionately affecting minority populations was "very accurate," but he warned HHS and CDC communications officials that "in this election cycle that is the kind of statement coming from CDC that the media and Democrat [sic] antagonists will use against the president." The problems were "due to decades of democrat neglect," Alexander alleged.
Alexander also appeared to acknowledge that the White House's own push to let states wind down their Covid-19 restrictions was leading to a spike in cases.
"There is a rise in cases due to testing and also simultaneously due to the relaxing of restrictions, less social distancing," Alexander wrote in a July 24 email. "We always knew as you relax and open up, cases will rise."
The emails represent an unusual window on the internal deliberations of the Trump administration, and the tensions between political appointees like Alexander — a part-time professor at a Canadian university — and staff members in health agencies. On Sept. 16, HHS announced that Alexander would be leaving the department, just days after POLITICO first reported on his efforts to shape the CDC's famed Morbidity and Mortality and Weekly Reports and pressure government scientist Anthony Fauci from speaking about the risks of Covid-19 to children.
In a statement, an HHS spokesperson said that Alexander’s demands for herd immunity “absolutely did not” shape department strategy.
“Dr. Paul Alexander previously served as a temporary Senior Policy Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and is no longer employed at the Department,” the spokesperson said.
Alexander did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Caputo, who took medical leave the same day that Alexander left the department, has referred previous inquiries to HHS.
Public health experts have decried calls to deliberately infect younger, healthier Americans with Covid-19, saying that it would unnecessarily put millions of people at risk of long-term complications and even death. “We certainly are not wanting to wait back and just let people get infected so that you can develop herd immunity. That's certainly not my approach,” Fauci said in September.
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who chairs the coronavirus subcommittee, said in a statement that the documents "show a pernicious pattern of political interference by Administration officials."
"As the virus spread through the country, these officials callously wrote, 'who cares' and 'we want them infected,'" Clyburn added. "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."
Clyburn said that the documents — which the Trump administration only released to his subcommittee after the election, more than two months after his probe began — underscore why HHS must cooperate with his investigation and that CDC Director Redfield must appear for an interview about an email that he allegedly told staff to delete. Otherwise, "I will be forced to start issuing subpoenas," Clyburn said.
The email cache provided a real-time look at the administration’s deliberations as the Covid-19 crisis first began to rebound during the summer.
"So the bottom line is if it is more infectiouness [sic] now, the issue is who cares?" Alexander wrote in a July 3 email to the health department's top communications officials. "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."
"How can this be researched and proven true or false?" Caputo asked Alexander in one July 25 email exchange, after Alexander had emailed Hahn and nine top communications officials across HHS and FDA about the value of herd immunity.
Alexander wrote back with data that he said he'd pulled from several studies, including a link to a June 30 Quanta Magazine article about the "tricky math" of herd immunity.
"I did not want to look like a nut ball and if as they think and as I think this may be true ... several hard hit areas may have hit heard [sic] at 20% like NYC," Alexander added. "[T]hat's my argument….why not consider it?"
The health department has worked to distance itself from Alexander since his mid-September departure, and several Trump appointees said that Alexander was often isolated during his roughly six-month stint advising department officials.
“His rants had zero impact on policy and communications,” a senior administration official insisted. “Caputo enabled him to opine, but people pushed back and it even got to a point where Caputo told him to stop sending the emails.”
But McGowan, the former CDC chief of staff, said that Alexander was effective at delaying the famed Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports and watering down guidance that came from his agency.
“He absolutely put pressure on the CDC on different guidance documents, on MMWRs,” McGowan said. “He wanted to change MMWRs that were already posted, which is just outrageous.”
While McGowan said that even though agency officials fended off Alexander’s demands to edit the morbidity and mortality reports, “it’s the type of political meddling that delayed guidance, delayed MMWRs from getting them out as quickly as possible to be effective,” McGowan added.