A top White House appointee in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) urged health officials in July to double down on a “herd immunity” approach to combating the Covid-19 pandemic, writing “we want [Americans] infected”.
Paul Alexander, a former aide to HHS assistant press secretary Michael Caputo and a known herd immunity advocate, wrote an email to Caputo on 4 July – right as virus cases were spiking in the Sun Belt – laying out his case for herd immunity.
“Allow the nation to develop antibodies. 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 wrote in the email, which was obtained and published by Politico.
Public health experts have said throughout the pandemic that a herd immunity strategy would lead to the healthcare system becoming overwhelmed and many more deaths due to the virus. While children and young adults tend to have milder cases of the virus, that does not mean they are completely immune to the virus’ most serious effect. A study of 3,000 adults aged 18 to 34 found that, of those sick enough to be hospitalized, 21% ended up in intensive care.
The emails are surfacing as part of a House investigation into interference from the White House on the work of career scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
James Clyburn, the Democratic US representative heading the investigation, has been putting pressure on HHS to cooperate with the investigation, citing growing evidence that Trump political appointees were meddling with CDC public guidance and information, looking to soften the appearance of how badly the virus was spreading.
Last week, Clyburn released a partial transcript of a testimony from a CDC official who said that she and others were instructed to delete an email from Alexander that said the CDC’s weekly report to the scientific community “is designed to hurt this Presidnet for their which I am not interested in”, apparently misspelling the world “president”.
In a statement, HHS said that Clyburn is “not operating in good faith” and is purposefully trying to portray the department in a bad light.
While HHS secretary Alex Azar has tried to distance the department from ideas of herd immunity, saying in October that “herd immunity is not the strategy of the US government”, Trump as recently as October suggested the strategy would make the virus “go away”.
“It would go away without the vaccine … With time it goes away, and you’ll likely develop a herd mentality,” Trump told George Stephanopoulos in October, possibly confusing the phrase with “herd immunity’. “It’s going to be herd developed, and that’s going to happen.”
A former CDC top official told Politico that Alexander represented the views of the White House to HHS. “It was understood that he spoke for Michael Caputo, who spoke for the White House,” said Kyle McGowan, a former CDC chief of staff who left the agency over the summer.