January 18, 2022

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Trump health official argued for exposure of young and healthy to achieve herd immunity and beat COVID-19

Paul Alexander, a Trump administration appointee, pushed for a herd immunity strategy that would have millions of healthy people exposed to the coronavirus.

Internal emails obtained by Politico revealed that Alexander, the former top deputy of Michael Caputo at the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote to his superiors on July 4 that the only way to end the pandemic was “to establish herd [immunity], and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD.”

He added, “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 also parroted President Trump’s claims that new cases were increasing at such a rapid pace because of a rise in testing and that new cases as states reopened were to be expected.

“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?”

Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of the population becomes immune to a disease, impeding its spread. Dr. Scott Atlas, a former White House coronavirus adviser, also touted the promise of a herd immunity strategy. But the White House and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar have said that the Trump administration’s strategy is not to pursue herd immunity through infection. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, called herd immunity “an unacceptable pathway.” More generally, epidemiologists have decried the strategy on the basis that it would lead to unnecessary deaths and serious illnesses due to the virus.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, along with government health officials, suggested in March that the United Kingdom should pursue the strategy, but the government abandoned the plan. Sweden, meanwhile, continued the strategy and resisted imposing coronavirus restrictions until recently. Sweden currently has one of the highest per-capita death rates in Europe, with over 75 deaths per 100,000 people.

In a July 24 memo to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Caputo, and eight other senior 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” in order to obtain “natural immunity.”

In a message to Caputo one day later, Alexander compiled data from several different studies to make a case for herd immunity, writing, “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. … [T]hat’s my argument. … Why not consider it?”

Alexander also argued to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield on July 27 that colleges should stay open to allow the virus to spread freely, but the agency “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 left the department in September at the same time as Caputo, who went on a social media rant in which he accused government health experts of plotting against Trump. He announced on Sept. 16 that he would be taking a medical leave of absence.

HHS has tried to distance itself from Alexander, arguing that the federal government had never considered adopting a herd immunity strategy. A department spokesperson told Politico that Alexander’s pressure to adopt the strategy “absolutely did not” shape the government’s pandemic response.

Kyle McGowan, a Trump appointee who was the CDC’s chief of staff until his departure over the summer, said Alexander repeatedly pressured the agency to delay the release of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports and “wanted to change MMWRs that were already posted, which is just outrageous.”

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