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Image via Shutterstock

Dr. Scott Atlas, a member of President Trump’s coronavirus task force, has angered public health medical experts with his cavalier attitude toward death as the US sets new records for cases and hospitalizations nearly every single day.

Americans over the age of 65 make up 79% of the nation’s quarter-million COVID-19 deaths, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But President Donald Trump’s favorite coronavirus advisor still thinks it’s just fine for you to put grandma or grandpa’s life at risk and have a big Thanksgiving gathering with your family. 

Dr. Scott Atlas, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told Fox News on Monday that skipping a big holiday gathering over fears of contracting the virus—which is surging across the country and pushing many hospital systems to the breaking point—would be a tragedy for the elderly. 

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“This kind of isolation is one of the unspoken tragedies of the elderly who are now being told don’t see your family at Thanksgiving,” Atlas said. “For many people, this is their final Thanksgiving, believe it or not. What are we doing here?”

While loneliness and isolation are unquestionably on the rise during the pandemic and represent a serious crisis, Atlas’ cavalier attitude toward death has angered public health medical experts.

Dr. Jasmine R. Marcelin, an infectious disease physician at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, blasted Atlas’ comments as ageist, “harmful,” and “disturbing.” 

“The whole point of skipping large gatherings this year is to keep ourselves and families safe so that we can gather together next year,” Marcelin told COURIER. 

Marcelin and other healthcare workers have warned that large holiday gatherings could lead to a further explosion of cases at a time when the US is setting new records for cases and hospitalizations nearly every single day.

“With catastrophic numbers of people becoming ill, needing hospitalization, and dying from COVID-19, large Thanksgiving gatherings are not safe for any of us, especially our older adults, who are at higher risk for severe illness and death,” Marcelin said. “Elderly are not disposable simply because they are older.”

The US has recorded more than 154,000 new cases per day over the past week, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a staggering total of more than 1 million new cases that represents a population larger than six individual states. Nearly 77,000 people are currently hospitalized with the virus and the nation is currently on track to reach 100,000 hospitalizations before the end of the month. 

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, urged Americans on Wednesday to “think twice” about traveling and gathering indoors over the holiday, telling USA TODAY’s Editorial Board that seemingly “innocent” family and friend dinner gatherings have been a key driver of the disease’s rampant spread in recent weeks.

“Because of the almost intuitive instinct that when you’re with people you know … and no one appears to be physically ill that it’s OK to congregate 10, 12 people for drinks or a meal or what have you, but it’s indoors because the weather is cold, that’s where we’re seeing these types of outbreaks,” Fauci said.

Fauci, who turns 80 in December, said his own Thanksgiving plans had been affected, as his three daughters decided not to return home this year in order to protect his health. “They made a decision because of my age, that as much as they would like to see me … that they are not going to come for Thanksgiving, … and I’m proud of them for that.” 

Instead, Fauci and his wife are planning to have dinner with their children over Zoom.

Fears over large gatherings are warranted, as about 40% of Americans said they planned to attend a Thanksgiving gathering with 10 or more people, according to a recent survey commissioned by Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. If those numbers hold and tens of millions of Americans gather with their families, it is likely that younger individuals, who have been driving the spread of the virus in recent months, will infect some of their older family members.

“We don’t really want to see Mamaw at Thanksgiving and bury her by Christmas,” Dr. Mark Horne, president of the Mississippi State Medical Association said during a virtual meeting of the group earlier this month. “It’s going to happen. You’re going to say hi at Thanksgiving, it’s so nice to see you, and you’re either going to be visiting her by Facetime in the ICU or planning a small funeral by Christmas.”

This is not the first time Atlas has drawn the ire of health officials. He has publicly questioned the need to wear masks and criticized social distancing measures and public restrictions—all of which have been shown to reduce transmission of the virus and save lives.

Atlas also pushed for the White House to embrace the widely discredited herd immunity approach, in which the nation simply allows the virus to spread throughout the population with little effort to stop it. Proponents of the idea say that eventually enough people will get sick and recover, and potentially even become immune to reinfection, slowing down the spread of the virus in the long run. But the approach—denounced by Fauci—is dangerous: Estimates suggest promoting herd immunity would lead to nearly 3 million American deaths.

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Over the weekend, Atlas also said Michigan residents should “rise up” over new coronavirus safety measures implemented by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer amid the state’s latest surge. His comments prompted Stanford University, where he serves as a fellow at the Hoover Institution, to distance themselves from him

Collectively, Atlas’ policies and suggestions have done an incredible amount of damage, according to public health experts. 

“He promotes policies to increase infections, suffering and death,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health wrote in a series of tweets on Monday. “He is ignorant and supports policies that kill Americans. He should be fired from his White House job.”

Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at Yale University, tweeted that Atlas should be “shunned for the rest of his days.”

Even other members of the Trump administration have blasted Atlas, with one senior official telling The Daily Beast that he is a “destructive force” who is making it more difficult to save lives. “I mean, at this point, I don’t know how else to explain what he’s doing. It’s really disruptive,” the anonymous official said.

At least 177,000 seniors have died of COVID-19, and if Americans listen to Atlas’ advice without considering the ramifications, there’s no telling how high that number could get.

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