Dec 16, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Emails show former Trump health appointee advocated herd immunity strategy

HHS secretary speaks next to Trump

HHS Secretary Alex Azar with President Trump at the White House on Nov. 20. Photo: Mangel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

A former senior Health and Human Services adviser advocated this summer to let young and middle-aged Americans become infected with COVID-19 in order to develop "herd immunity," according to emails released Wednesday by the House committee overseeing the federal government's coronavirus response.

Why it matters: Without a vaccine, achieving herd immunity — in which widespread outbreaks are prevented because enough people in a community are immune to a disease — would result in widespread fatalities and likely overwhelm health systems.

  • Politico first reported on the documents released by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who chairs the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
  • Paul Alexander was the former adviser to HHS assistant public affairs secretary Michael Caputo, who took a leave of absence after accusing CDC scientists of gathering a "resistance unit" against President Trump.

What they're saying: "My view, we open up fully as described below, protect the vulnerable, make sensible decisions, and allow the nation to develop antibodies," Alexander wrote in a July 4 email to multiple HHS spokespeople, including his former boss Michael Caputo.

  • "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.... and recovered...with antibodies," he added.

In a July 24 email to FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn, Caputo and eight other officials, Alexander wrote: "[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 if we acutely lock down the elderly and at-risk folk...but use the strong and well in the society to get infected and get to that 25%."

  • "[M]aybe as we wait for a vaccine and therapeutics, we may be able to get 25% antibodies ourselves by natural immunity...natural exposure," Alexander added. "This can't be discounted...we have [to] think outside the box."

In a July 27 email to CDC director Robert Redfield, Alexander said the country “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.”

The big picture: Achieving herd immunity through mass infection of non-vulnerable people — while protecting the vulnerable — isn't possible without offering protections that the U.S. has never attempted.

  • For example, nursing home cases have moved in tandem with the total number of cases, even though we've known for months that nursing homes are as at-risk as it gets.
  • HHS Secretary Alex Azar and other Trump officials have insisted that herd immunity was never the administration's strategy, though the president suggested in September that the virus would disappear when people develop "a herd mentality."

Worth noting: Alexander also frequently attacked scientists like Anthony Fauci, accusing them of muddling public health messaging and trying to "destroy the nation and people's lives just to make the President look bad."

The other side: An HHS spokesperson said in a statement to Politico that Alexander’s demands "absolutely did not" shape the agency's 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.
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