Interview with Scott W. Atlas
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Peter Robinson: An accomplished physician, a scholar of public health, and a colleague of mine at the Hoover Institution Scott Atlas on what we’ve learned about the virus and why the time has come to end the lockdown. Welcome, everyone, to another special plague-time edition of “Uncommon Knowledge” with Peter Robinson. Scott, welcome. Thanks for making the time.
Scott Atlas: Happy to be here.
Peter Robinson: Speaking in early March, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, quote, “The flu has a mortality rate of 0.1%. This, the COVID-19 virus, this, has a mortality rate of 10 times that,” close quote. Dr. Atlas, was Dr. Fauci correct?
Scott Atlas: Well, no. At the time, there was very little known, to be fair. The evidence that was leaking out really from China and through the WHO actually said that the fatality rate 3.4%. At that point in time, the fatality rate of that high, it’s reasonable to say, hey, it’s justifiable to lockdown temporarily because that would have been really catastrophic. The models that were made at that time projected literally catastrophic losses, millions of people dying in the U.S., millions of people dying in the UK, for example, but of course, we’ve learned since then, so the answer is no.
Peter Robinson: Okay, we will come to that. The costs of the lockdown, we’ve heard over and over again about the costs of the virus to us, but you have written lately about the costs of the lockdown. So let me ask you to take us through an article that you and your co-worker John Birge… How’s that pronounced?
Scott Atlas: Birge.
Peter Robinson: John Birge and Ralph Keeney published in “The Hill” in late May. From that article, quote, “Statistically, every 10 million to 24 million lost in U.S. incomes results in one additional death,” close quote. How do you derive that? What does that mean?
Scott Atlas: Yes, well, let me just acknowledge the fourth co-author who is Alexander Lipton, who is…
Peter Robinson: Oh, I’m sorry.
Scott Atlas: In any event, what’s happened is when you look at this kind of number someone might say where’d you get that. These are data, these are numbers, that are pretty established in the economics literature in actuarial tables and in a variety of other publications that are published. I just wanna clarify, we did not do any sort of model or complex hypothetical projection. We looked at established retrospective data that has been done that is empirical that correlates loss of economic productivity, unemployment, and similarly, the health care losses that we went through.
Peter Robinson: I’m familiar, this is your field, not mine, so when I say I’m familiar, I have a layman glancing familiarity with work that’s been done on the so-call deaths of despair, particularly in Appalachia, opioid deaths that’s related to unemployment. People lose their jobs. The income departs from a town or a region. Alcoholism goes up. Opioid abuse goes up. Death rates of all kinds go up. That’s the work? Or does it go even farther back than that?
Scott Atlas: Well, it’s partly that, but really, most of the stuff that we included in the true health care losses were listed in that piece, which are a very limited list of things, but you’re right. The unemployment itself leads to worsening health and loss of lives and life years, which is exactly the way economists really have to classify thing. It’s the life years, the decreased life expectancy per se. It’s not just direct health care.
Peter Robinson: Somebody who dies at the age of 20 has lost more, according to the economist’s calculations, than someone who dies at the age of 90, lost more life years, is that correct?
Scott Atlas: That’s exactly right, and that’s a very important part of this to understand.
Peter Robinson: Again, I’m quoting from that article. “In addition to lives lost because of lost income, lives also are lost due to delayed or foregone health care.” Explain that, Scott.
Scott Atlas: Sure, this is one of the really horrifying but underemphasized truths of the cost of the lockdown. As we said in the article, for instance, 650,000 Americans have cancer and undergo chemotherapy right now, currently. Half of them stop getting their chemotherapy. That’s actually happened in the U.S. during this so-called lockdown.
Peter Robinson: Because they’re scared of going into the hospital, that they might get the COVID, or because the hospitals have shut down or some combination of all of this?
Scott Atlas: Exactly, and this is a good question. There are two reasons. One is in the beginning, the hospitals, because of anticipated overcrowding, decided we’re going to stop quote, unquote, “Non-essential procedures.” What that meant was not what layman would understand at a glance, which would be, oh, that’s cosmetic surgery. Okay, we’re gonna get-
Peter Robinson: We can live without that.
Scott Atlas: We can live without that, but the reality is non-essential procedures meant everything that was non-emergent. So that means literally thousands of biopsies per week of potential cancers were not done. All scheduled hip replacements, knee replacement were not done. All kinds of other things including, for instance, I forget the total number of cancer screenings, but 2/3 to 3/4 of cancer screenings were not done.
Peter Robinson: May I make a little confession? I got an email from a medical facility that you and I both know and where I go. It said, “You’re due for a colonoscopy.” I’m not especially happy to undergo a colonoscopy at any point, but I thought to myself, “You know what, just at this moment, I think I’ll skip it.” That’s the kind of thing you’re talking about. That’s happening across the country.
Scott Atlas: And the second part is what you had alluded to, which is the fear because it turned out that even emergency care was not getting done. 40% of people who had an acute stroke… You basically have zero to six hours from your symptoms to get into the hospital to get treated. 40% of them did not call the ambulance. That’s our of fear. Same thing with heart attacks, 40, 50% of people with heart attacks did not call the ambulance. The most ironic of all was more than half of children did not go in for their vaccinations, which of course the sad irony is that this is setting up yet another health catastrophe that we did actually quantify because there are CDC data about lives lost when you don’t have immunizations from some of these really very serious illnesses.
Peter Robinson: So we have so-called deaths of despair, the horrible things that happen when people lose their jobs or income just generally drops. We also have all kinds of medical procedures that ought to happen that are not happening. These are not small effects. They’re large. I’m quoting, again, your article in “The Hill.” Quote, “The disease that is COVID-19 has been responsible for 800,000 lost years of life, not individual deaths but lost years of life, so far. The national lockdown is responsible for at least 700,000 lost years of life every month, or about 1.5 million so far, already far surpassing the COVID-19 total,” close quote. That’s more than arresting. It’s shocking. You are saying the lockdown has already cost twice as many years of life as the virus it was supposed to protect us against. Have I got that right? You’re just saying as best social scientists can come to the numbers, those are the numbers.
Scott Atlas: Those are the conservative numbers because in that calculation, we only included the lost year of lives from unemployment in terms of the economic side and we lost the lives lost from the specific list of about half a dozen health care misses that were not getting done. So we were very conservative, intentionally so. I wanna point out something else, which is that was written a month ago. It’s true that there’s been another 20,000 deaths from the virus, but in addition, we have another between 10 and 15% worse unemployment, and more people have skipped things like vaccinations and things. The lockdown is not over. As you know and many people know-
Peter Robinson: I well know.
Scott Atlas: When government say they’re opening, where I live, it’s nowhere near open.
Peter Robinson: Since you live about a mile and a half from where I live, we’re in exactly the same boat.
Scott Atlas: Exactly.
Peter Robinson: So Scott, here we are smiling, but that’s just to keep from crying. This is horrible. Let me ask you this. I have said, and I’ve asked guests who’ve been on in the last couple of months, public officials have been telling us again and again, back in the day, “the days,” as if they were ancient history, a month ago, when President Trump was still holding his daily press conferences, and there was Dr. Fauci and a couple of other public health officials on the platform with him… When those public health officials stood to the lectern and they talked again and again about the costs of COVID and why we need to lockdown to protect these lives. I assumed at the time that they weren’t doing the other cost, they weren’t estimating the costs. It just seems to be the way you make policy is by doing a cost-benefit analysis. There are benefits to locking down, we save these COVID lives. There seemed to be no effort to assess the costs. Here comes Scott Atlas saying the costs outweigh the benefits. All right, that’s a horrible finding, but what you’re telling me is that you were using data and work that’s been around for a long time. I assumed that they weren’t able to model the costs of locking down as well as they were able to model the benefits, that nobody had done this work yet. Now, I’m not a professional. There may be all kinds of material I missed, but as a layman who’s been following it all fairly closely, your article, three months into the crisis, was the first attempt to measure the costs of the lockdown that I have seen anywhere. Why? Why weren’t they measuring the costs from the get-go?
Scott Atlas: This is really one of the several egregious failures of the policy implementation here because basically, what we would sanely do is consider the impact of what we’re doing as well as the impact of what we’re trying to prevent. Instead, they did two things, they, the policymakers in general. They put in a lockdown. They did care at all, they did not calculate at all the harms of the lockdown, the consequences of the lockdown. They did a stop COVID 19 at all costs. They used hypothetical projection models that were so egregiously wrong, far, far off. Yet they keep citing those models.
Peter Robinson: Even now.
Scott Atlas: Even now. So the extension of the lockdown is the problem. I think we can all understand why the initial lockdown was done, as I mentioned. Once the fatality rate projections actually are data instead of projections, when we see what’s going on, when we know who to protect, which we can talk about, we understand the really disastrous consequences of what the continuation of the initial lockdown is doing.
Peter Robinson: Scott, how to end the lockdown. Again, I’m going to ask you to take us through an article on which you’re the sole author this time also published in “The Hill” in which you lay out a play for ending the lockdown. You suggest three steps, as I count them, that represent in one way or another taking medical measure, and here, let me quote you. “Let’s finally focus on protection for the most vulnerable. That means nursing home patients,” “Those with mild symptoms of the illness should strictly self-isolate for two weeks,” two, and “We should implement prioritized testing for three specific groups: nursing home workers, health care workers, and first responders, and patients in hospitals with respiratory symptoms or fever,” three. So, Scott Atlas, Dr. Scott Atlas MD, says, “There’s no need for 2/3 or more of the population to continue to shelter at home. You focus on nursing homes. If you feel sniffles, you go home for two weeks. There are specific groups of people who are on, so to speak, the front line of dealing with this. We need to test those people. We don’t need to wait until there are 20 million tests available each day. We don’t need to wait until there’s a vaccine. We do one, two, three doable things, and we can start talking about reopening.” Have I got you right?
Scott Atlas: Yes, exactly right. Those really should have been done from the beginning, frankly, because we knew who the vulnerable group were. I’ve said this many times, but every competent medical student knew from day one that like every other upper-respiratory viral-type infection, the highly vulnerable people are elderly people with underlying conditions and other what are called immunocompromised people. So that is the common sense and logical way to deal with this, and I just wanna mention instead of doing that, and even to this day, everyone who is healthy and not at risk is confined or strictly limited in their activities. Yet they, the state particularly, state leadership, but also other countries outside the U.S. even, did not lockdown appropriately the nursing homes. Even in a place like Sweden that has a relatively rational policy and did appropriate social distancing guidelines, very important, instead of decrees and confinement, they didn’t confine everyone to their homes, but in Stockholm, 70% of the deaths are in nursing homes. it’s not like the U.S. leadership monopolized the incompetence. The incompetence is really worldwide on protecting the obvious vulnerable population.
Peter Robinson: Okay, true enough, but I wanna come back to the U.S. leadership. The Federal, state, and local governments absorbed something like 40% of GDP, they have been using for three months the direct coercive powers of the state to tell us what we may and may not do, and with all those resources and all those powers, Dr. Scott Atlas says, “You know what? They botched it,” correct?
Scott Atlas: Absolutely, and again, the botching was the extension of the initial lockdown. The initial lockdown, okay, we didn’t know it was going-
Peter Robinson: Forgivable, understandable.
Scott Atlas: I’m gonna understand the initial lockdown, but the extension of the lockdown is completely and utterly incorrect and.
Peter Robinson: Let me continue your article in “The Hill.” I’m quoting Dr. Atlas. “Open all K-12 schools. Open all the schools. Open businesses, including restaurants and offices. Parks and beaches should open and outdoor sports should resume. There is no scientific reason to insist that people remain indoors,” close quote. Open all the schools.
Scott Atlas: I mean, this is really-
Peter Robinson: Are you wanna put our children at risk?
Scott Atlas: This is really the most important thing to do for our society for several obvious reasons. Number one, of course, if you don’t open the schools, you’ve locked down society because most people do not have a second home with a maid or just buying a few iPads. It doesn’t work that way for most people, but that’s really not the main reason. The main reason, of course, to open the schools is because the children need schooling. This is why we should open the schools because there is virtually zero risks of death and virtually zero risks of a serious illness in children. This is the fact. This is inarguable. This is proven not only every country outside the United States but by our own data in the CDC itself. Of the first hundred-plus-thousand deaths analyzed, 99.98 deaths were not in children. I’m talking about percent, 99.9% of deaths are in people over 24. Now, K-12, of course, are young children. There’s another big point here. All over the world, Switzerland, Iceland, Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Asian countries, there is a minimal, if any, risk of children transmitting the disease, even to their parents. It’s not just that children are not at risk at all from this disease. They also do not even transmit the disease. It is literally irrational to not only close schools-
Peter Robinson: So the teachers wouldn’t be at risk either? 5th-grade teachers, 6th-grade teachers, kindergarten teachers, they won’t be at risk either?
Scott Atlas: There’s not a significant risk, but I wanna qualify that. Let’s look at who the teachers are in K-12 schools in the United States. Half of them are 41 years old or younger. 82% are under 55. The risk from COVID-19 for people under 60 is less than or equal to seasonal influenza. So if you’re gonna shut down the schools because you’re worried about the rare teacher who’s in a high-risk category, you must necessarily close the schools from November through April because they’re at the same risk in flu season. Now, that’s point number one. Point number two is besides that teachers are relatively young, if there are high-risk teachers, we don’t wanna put a high-teacher in a risky environment. No one wants to do that. Even if the children could transmit the disease, and it’s not impossible, but it’s less likely, even when they could, we know how to socially isolate. Don’t you think that teachers by now understand what six-foot distancing is, understand they can wear a mask? If they’re still afraid, if they still find it impossible to do social distancing that they’ve been doing for the last three months, if they still think it’s impossible, they can teach from a distance, they’ve been doing that now, instead of shutting down schools. In my way of thinking, from the data, if you’re shutting down schools, you do not care about the children, because it’s very critical, beyond the fact that they’re not at risk, to understand something very important, the harms of closing the schools. This is really a big topic, and no one’s talking about it. We know from the data already it’s a fallacy to think that online education in K-12 is even remotely, no pun intended, like the quality of education kids get. First of all, in learning itself, 50% of children in the Boston area are not even logging in when they’re supposedly in session, there’s already been an estimated 30% loss in reading skills for young children with this online model. We know as parents, the most obvious learning you do, at least as important as the book learning, if not more, is the social experience, learning to work in groups, the physical activity. We don’t send our kids to school just so that they can read a book of specific information. We can give that to them at home. We want their socializing. This is normal maturation that is simply not happening. The physical activity’s not happening. There’s something else that I have not written about so that you couldn’t possibly quote me. I get thousands of emails per week from all over the world from researchers, parents, regular people thanking me for what I’m writing. One of my emails, recently, came from an emergency room doctor at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, who told me that the serious child abuse emergency room visits are up 35% during the lockdown. Now, let me tell you what that means. This is very important. Somebody who brings in their child to the emergency room, that’s not because they smacked them around and gave ’em a black eye. I’m saying this with sadness. These emergency room visits are for children who the parents think they might have killed them. They’re unresponsive. They have multiple broken bones. These are the most serious. 35% increase in child abuse and that’s directly due to the lockdown, and I’ll explain why because when you lose your job, the correlation of amount of child abuse found in a home is directly correlated for lower socio-economic, unemployment, alcohol abuse. This is markedly increasing during the lockdown when we know that almost half of people making $40,000 a year or less lost their jobs, by far more than people like you and I. So when these people have children and the schools are closed and there’s a tremendous amount of stress in the household, we know that the emergency room visits are going way up. That’s only part A. Part B is that do you know where the number one place that child abuse is noticed by an outside person? The schools.
Peter Robinson: School.
Scott Atlas: You close the schools, you have no visibility on the overwhelming majority of child abuse. So this is creating a catastrophic, sad and simply unspoken harm to the children. You realize, by the way, I didn’t mention, this is in the article, that when children go to school, that’s the number place where people with children would need glasses are detected, children that need hearing aids.
Peter Robinson: The school lunch program, for some kids, it’s the best meal they get all day.
Scott Atlas: Exactly, so when you shut schools, and there’s no risk to the children, again, there’s zero risk to the children, you are directly harming children. I don’t understand how people who claim to be so focused on children, teachers, teachers’ unions… I think it’s really outrageous. This will go down as the most heinous misapplication of public policy in modern America.
Peter Robinson: Scott, “Businesses, including restaurants, reopen them,” you say that as well. I didn’t quote you, but you argue we’ll need to use some new measures for hygiene, social distancing, and so forth. Just elaborate on that for a sentence or two, would you please?
Scott Atlas: Sure.
Peter Robinson: How different does the working environment need to be to make it safe?
Scott Atlas: No one knows the real answer to that, but we know we are sensitized, we have learned a lotta things about hygiene, sensitivity to any kind of distancing, and this sort of social behavior. No one knew what these words meant, even, before. Now I think, as a society, we’ve learned quite a bit. Restaurants and private enterprise, as you undoubtedly would realize, they wanna make an environment that their customers and their employees feel safe in. Otherwise, it’s not gonna function. They are already responding. Certain businesses are putting in plastic barriers, other things are being done with hygiene in restaurants and stores, but I think it’s important to also recognize two things. Number one, guidelines are important. I feel like educating the public, this is the role of government here. I could see requiring restaurants to put a guideline in the door that says if you’re over 65 and if you are diabetic, there may be a risk for being in a small space with nearby other people, but that’s very different from saying to a restaurant must have six-foot spacing, a restaurant must have mask. I think this is a very important topic. The science behind six-foot spacing is embarrassingly weak. One underscore to that is that the WHO itself recommends three feet.
Peter Robinson: Really?
Scott Atlas: Many countries in the world use three feet. Some countries use 1.5 meters. These are obviously arbitrary pseudoscience concepts. Okay, one of the studies that was done to necessitate masks and certain distances is they put two hamsters in cages. One of them had a mask on, one didn’t, and they blew, with a fan, microdroplets at them from certain distances. This is not the same thing as an infectious agent causing an infection. Point number two though, we know that 98, 99% of people that get the virus have no serious problem with the infection. Half are asymptomatic.
Peter Robinson: Wait. Repeat that percentage. I thought it was at least half. Half are asymptomatic?
Scott Atlas: Half are asymptomatic, and 98 or 99% have no serious illness-
Peter Robinson: Oh, so you might feel as though you have a cold, sniffles?
Scott Atlas: Or you have the flu, or it’s a bad flu, and you stay home You’re not gonna go the hospital. You’re not going to die, and frankly, if you feel that it’s risky to go into a restaurant, then don’t go. If you’re 75 and a diabetic with heart disease and obese and you’re a high-risk person and you don’t feel safe going into a restaurant, then don’t go. No one’s mandating anyone goes, but to set up a law, or a restriction, that is based on very weak science at best and to say, “You must operate that way or you can’t open your restaurant,” Peter, 70 or 80% occupancy is meeting costs in Manhattan and in most places for restaurants, you can’t have a functional business like that. No one wants to even go in under those circumstances. The science is really not science. It’s a fear-based and cherry-picking of certain studies. It’s very poor analysis. As I say many times, a lotta smart people are doing a lotta sloppy thinking.
Peter Robinson: Let me ask you about what we should have learned or perhaps to some extent, what we should have done. To return to this central point, which I have to say over again just to get it in my mind, it’s just so shocking, the lockdown has already cost about twice as many years of life as the virus it was supposed to protect us against. This could only have happened if our public health officials and elected leaders made terrible mistakes. Name the top two mistakes. You’ve already said you can understand why Dr. Fauci thought what he thought and recommended what he recommended, you can understand the initial lockdown. They didn’t have good data. The initial data coming out of China, or the initial indications coming out of China, looked very scary, but that was then, and here we are three months later. When should they have changed? What were the mistakes?
Scott Atlas: The big mistake, frankly, was relying on and reacting to, continually, the hypothetical projection models that were grossly wrong. This is still being done. I’m interviewed about this all the time. There’s a new projection. The projection models now that are being used, you have to realize, this is a very commonsense point, I think, every four to five days, they readjust the projection. This has been going on for three months now. If a model is good, why would you have to readjust it every four to five days? It’s because there’s new data. Why don’t we just look at the data? Instead of focusing on the actual data that we’ve been acquiring here, they keep relying on these projection, hypothetical, worst-case-scenario models. Those models, by the way, anticipate deaths based upon the rate including the rates of nursing home and non-protection of the elderly. So the models themselves are grossly flawed. This is a societal problem here, I feel. This is not my area of expertise. This is conjecture, but we’re in a world of hyperbole. We’re in a world where social media is an igniter of really outrageous statements and reactions and instantaneous things, and we’re in a world where anyone who can do a Google search thinks they’re an expert, so we hear a lotta people pontificating about medications, about side effects. They don’t have any medical perspective whatsoever. The news is sensationalizing. One example was this idea that children get this rare entity called Kawasaki syndrome, or it’s similar to that. This is extremely rare, but this was the headline for over a week, really. The reality is that doctors understand that there are rare exceptions that are very dangerous in virtually every disease. The rare exceptions do not change the overwhelming amount of data. Yet that carried the day, so there’s this sort of reactive fear that has entered into the public policymaking.
Peter Robinson: Scott, let me read to you a quotation. This is George Gilder in “The Wall Street Journal.” I’m going to ask you a couple of questions now that aren’t strictly medical. If they make you feel uncomfortable, say so, but I know you study public health policy so this is a question of the interplay between democracy and medical professionals.
Scott Atlas: Exactly.
Peter Robinson: So here’s George Gilder. “The U.S. economy has been cratered less by the coronavirus than by the response to it driven by the undemocratic idea that science should rule. There are not and never will be scientific answers to all public problems. Politics is how we exercise our free will, and that, rather than reflexively deferring to experts, we should defer as much as possible to the principles of freedom and common sense,” close quote. What do you make of that?
Scott Atlas: Well, I think that’s right on target. That’s sort of the difference between what I’m saying, which is have regulation guidelines, but that’s different from dictatorial confinement or conditions for selected business are essential and selected businesses are not. The whole thing is off the rails in terms of what you thought was a free society, but I would modify something. This is the difference between what I do and pure science because health care policy takes into account health care but also public policy. Public policy, as you know, has a lot to do with what he called politics, which is what is the way to guide society to implement the information. What I’ve said, and what I still say, is that our leaders failed to have the capacity to analyze in a logical common-sense way what the experts were saying. We should never and will never in any free society simply delegate, to people who are computer modelers, what we should do in a policy world.
Peter Robinson: Let me ask you, President Trump and many governors have been attacked again and again very roundly for failing to defer enough to the so-called experts, excuse me, I shouldn’t say so-called, they are experts, to the experts, but you’re almost arguing that they deferred too much to the experts, that they failed to push back and say, wait a moment, my job as an elected leader is to make trade-offs. It’s my job to preserve the freedoms of this nation and to engage in a certain amount of common sense, and above all, not above all, but if I possibly can, to preserve to the extent possible the economy, the functioning of our schools and our businesses. That’s my job, so you’re the expert. You give me advice. I make decisions. What do you make of all that?
Scott Atlas: I think this is exactly right. In other words, I like to say that empathy and caution are not enough from a public figure. We all know that this was a disaster. We all need the reassurance and the caution, but on the other hand, the way to really reassure the public, to me, is to say in a very logical commonsense way what are the facts? Given all the facts and given what we’re going to do, this is what we feel is the best pathway to come out at the other end. I think people are reassured by listening to people who can logically present the information and make a logical case, because, okay, not everyone’s scientist or an epidemiologist or an infectious disease person. No one out there in politics, hardly any, have really had medical training, some have, but the reality is that people understand logic when you have the facts and then you have people give you the facts, and then you use your common sense. Frankly, this has been missing on the other hand of this, from the experts. These people have been talking about their own fields, but they have not used deductive reasoning and common sense and logic to interpret those findings for political leaders and for public policy implementation. There’s been a disconnect.
Peter Robinson: You have a high opinion of the American people. Give them the facts and a little bit of guidance, and their intelligence and common sense will see them through.
Scott Atlas: I think that that is 100% correct. Frankly, you can see there are very few countries that have been totally like what I’m saying, but there are some, and I’ll give you an example. Sweden, which of course has been inappropriately criticized, but I can go through that if you’d like, but the reality is they trusted their citizens. What they said was these are the guidelines. We’re not gonna do a total lockdown. We believe you understand the seriousness of this. People did social distancing. People did a variety of maneuvers, but on the other end of this, they’re coming out in a much less harmed fashion. They didn’t close their schools. They didn’t lock down their businesses. They’re going to take a hit because people did social distance, but what we’ve done here, it’s gonna take many years to recover from this. It’s gonna be a very difficult task.
Peter Robinson: Scott, COVID-19, and recent events in the news. Take a look at two tweets. Let’s contrast two recent tweets if we can. Tweet number one, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City on April 18th: “My message to the Jewish community and all communities is this simple. The time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups.” Tweet number two, once again, Mayor de Blasio, this time on June 14th: “Marching during today’s East Harlem Pray and Protest, I felt confident that change will come.” There he is. He’s posted himself, picture of himself in large groups. What are we to make of this?
Scott Atlas: What we’re to make is this is what you see when you have irrational people in our leadership positions, because there is no logic, of course, to what you just showed, having that total disconnect, but even more so, even if you just took the first tweet, which was, “It’s all about saving lives and stopping the infection period” is what he said, the reality was it wasn’t about that because there was no evidence that you had to close all religious services and selectively open up other groups and other businesses. That’s just not the way the data was. Even the WHO recommended various other ways to deal with small spaces. I just think this was, again, fear and ignorance driving public policy. The contradiction is just underscoring the lack of rational thought when he’s out and other leaders were out. Meantime, they keep saying it’s all about lives, but they didn’t lock down the nursing homes. We had thousands of people in New York killed, not just died in nursing homes, killed by an order that commanded that infected nursing home patients were still going to be put back into the nursing home. So these are people that have really indefensible cases. One day, I hope that there’s some accountability with that.
Peter Robinson: Another set of two items. These are not contrasts. These are similar. The contrast is that they’re on opposite sides of the country. Venice Beach. In Venice Beach, California, a picture of a bulldozer that’s filling a skateboard park with sand on the beach to make sure that kids don’t use it. Here’s another picture. This one is in New York City. This is at the behest of Mayor de Blasio. City workers are welding shut the gates of a public park. Dr. Atlas, what do you make of Venice Beach and the park being shut in New York.
Scott Atlas: There’s two just really inexplicable thought processes going on there. One is that, somehow, people seem to think in leadership positions that it makes sense to be confined indoors rather than be out of doors. You don’t have to be a doctor to understand that that is just completely ludicrous, and then when you look at the data, even the original data out of Japan, they showed that the transmission rates were far higher, by order of magnitude higher, inside, in confined spaces. Outdoors is far lower risk to get a contagious disease. This is just common sense. I don’t even know how to explain how that is so ridiculous, but the second part is locking children’s playgrounds. Again, we go back to the fact these leaders insist that, quote, “It’s all about the science,” but they’re doing things that are contrary to the science because there is virtually no risk to the people who would use those playgrounds. The children have almost no risk. In fact, I’ll give you quote from the JAMA Pediatrics journal.
Peter Robinson: JAMA’s the-
Scott Atlas: Journal of the AMA Pediatrics, it’s a special pediatrics journal.
Peter Robinson: Thank you.
Scott Atlas: This was a series of 48 pediatric hospitals in North America. Their quote is, “The risk of a serious illness from seasonal influenza in children is, quote, “far greater than the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 in children.” This is a completely irrational response, to lock down the playgrounds. It defies any science whatsoever. In fact, it just shows a complete lack of capability for being in a leadership position.
Peter Robinson: Last question. Scott Atlas writing in “The Hill” on May 18th, “The time of failed leadership must end or we are committing national suicide.” You wrote that on May 18th. We’re recording this on June 18th. The lockdown hasn’t ended. Why not?
Scott Atlas: Again, I think it’s a failure to communicate. The failure to communicate is also in the leading voices of the policy. When we have people who are completely risk-averse, like Dr. Fauci, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for, when he gets out there and says, “Well, we don’t know everything about the virus, we don’t know 100% that children can’t get sick,” these kinds of statements are just really not thoughtful statements. They’re not taken by someone who understands he’s speaking to the public here. You have to have some perspective. So the fear has been so great. Basically, the people in charge are laymen. They’re human beings. I empathize with the fear, but we have to expect more from the leadership than that.
Peter Robinson: Will COVID-19 come back in the fall? If it does, how bad will it be? If it’s bad, will we lock down all over again?
Scott Atlas: All good questions. No one knows if COVID-19 will come back in the fall. No one, and in fact, we know that previous SARS viruses didn’t necessarily come back because this bit about viruses mutating, that’s actually a good thing generally because when they mutate, they become less impactful. That’s how they fizzle out, so we don’t know if COVID-19 will come back in the fall. If it did, we do know that we are far better prepared. We all understand social distancing. We’re all used to what to do, but more importantly than that even, the government has done well at understanding how to mobilize resources. We know how to stockpile things. We know how to mobilize and have a better handle on how many ventilators we need. In fact, we were never short of ventilators, by the way, despite the protestations of people like Governor Cuomo. So we are far more mobilizing in our resources. We’re experienced. We don’t know if it’ll come back. By the way, we don’t know if we will have a vaccine. We can think there’s good positive indicators we’ll have a vaccine, but vaccines are not magic wands even when we get them. We know seasonal influenza vaccine is 40 to 60% effective. It’s not 100% effective, so that should not be a prerequisite, a predicate, for reopening. We know how to deal with this virus. We know exactly, really, who’s gonna be vulnerable to this. We know that the overwhelming majority of people don’t have a problem if they get infected. So to me, I don’t care that cases are going up. In fact, that’s not a problem at all. It’s only important to protect the people who are gonna have a serious problem with this illness.
Peter Robinson: I said it was last question. I’m just gonna stick one in. You mentioned that we’ve actually done pretty well in certain regards. Here’s Vice President Pence, Mike Pence, writing yesterday in “The Wall Street Journal.” Quote, “The media has tried to scare the American people every step of the way. The truth is our approach has been a success. We’ve slowed the spread. We’ve cared for the most vulnerable. We’ve saved lives, and we’ve created a solid foundation for whatever we may face in the future. That’s a cause for celebration, not the fear-mongering,” close quote. How much of that do you buy?
Scott Atlas: I agree that we have learned quite a bit during this, and we have mobilized resources, and we did do many things correctly. That said, we still had a tremendous problem with protecting the most vulnerable. That’s all across the country, variety of states. Some states have 80% of their deaths are in nursing homes. Even the other day, by the way, Minnesota had 15 new deaths, 11, even the other day, were in nursing homes, 11 of the 15 deaths. You’d think, in this, an area where there’s restricted entry already, we’d be able to handle that. So I think that we’ve had problems. We were caught blindsided, by the way. The world was. China did not give the information. They denied it was a human to human interaction. They denied that it was a serious problem. Then these people in the region where it was infection center, really, Wuhan, there was an allowance of flights internationally. So we were caught by surprise, but I think in the end, despite the deficiencies, I don’t think we did very poorly. I think in some ways we did well, and it’s hard to say that when you had 120,000 people die, but on the other hand, there’s very little that could have been done in a realistic way, to me, given that we were blindsided, better. We’re going to do much better in the next pandemic, which, frankly, is inevitable.
Peter Robinson: Inevitable.
Scott Atlas: from this, but it’s inevitable.
Peter Robinson: This is the last question. There will be another pandemic. You’ve just said that. You just used the word inevitable. Now, consider, if you would consider the rising generation of physicians and public health officials. Think about the kids who are in med school right now. I repeat this heartbreaking, maybe infuriating… Maybe it should even be enraging, but I repeat your finding that the lockdown has cost something like twice as many years of human life as the COVID virus itself has cost. What do you wanna say to the kids who are in med school right now watching all of this happen about the central lessons that they should learn and apply when the inevitable next pandemic strikes and they may be in charge.
Scott Atlas: The central lessons are to use critical thinking when you’re looking at the evidence. That’s point numbers one through nine. You really have to have perspective when you’re looking at something. You don’t just read the bottom line of a study. When you’re taught in a good medical school and in a training program as a doctor, the difference between a great doctor and a good doctor is not the amount of information they know. It’s to be able to use deductive reasoning and critical analysis of the information. The first part is use critical thinking. The second part is, of course, when we’re doing a health policy maneuver or a health policy implementation, you must understand the impact of the policy itself. There’s no such policy as stopping COVID-19 at all cost. That was never the policy even of the Trump team of Fauci and Birx in the beginning. That was never the stated policy, but it has devolved into that sort of thinking, where we must stop all COVID-19 at all cost. Somehow, the public, because of that policy, has become so fearful that now they buy into that policy. So I think that’s lesson number two, know the impact of the policies themselves. At least be able to judge that before you start implementing really severe, in this case draconian, public policy.
Peter Robinson: Scott, here’s the last question. Here in northern California, when are the barbershops finally gonna reopen, because I’m going just crazy. I can’t use any more glop on my hair.
Scott Atlas: This is sort of an interesting question because I got a haircut today. I’ll tell you how-
Peter Robinson: Where?
Scott Atlas: Yeah, actually, in my barbershop. I’m sort of happy to say it because I think the rules are outrageous. This is what’s evolving here. There is sort of a speakeasy culture evolving. I know this is happening in New York City because I have people who I know who live there. It’s sort of like the era of prohibition, where people have had enough. Logical, sane commonsense Americans have said, “No, enough is enough,” so many stores are boarding up the front or putting curtains up, and now there is this what I call a speakeasy culture emerging, where life will go on for the people who understand that this is actually completely irrational. It’s gonna happen more and more unless the political leaders get their act together.
Peter Robinson: After we close, which we’re doing right now, I’ll give you a phone call, and you’ll tell me the address of your barbershop and tell me the password, knock, knock, who’s there, one of those. Dr. Scott Atlas of the Hoover Institution, thank you.
Scott Atlas: Pleasure.