WASHINGTON — The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has grown increasingly concerned that President Donald Trump, pushed by a new member of his coronavirus task force, is sharing incorrect information about the pandemic with the public.
Dr. Robert Redfield, who leads the CDC, suggested in a conversation with a colleague Friday that Dr. Scott Atlas is arming Trump with misleading data about a range of issues, including questioning the efficacy of masks, whether young people are susceptible to the virus and the potential benefits of herd immunity.
"Everything he says is false," Redfield said during a phone call made in public on a commercial airline and overheard by NBC News.
Redfield acknowledged after the flight from Atlanta to Washington that he was speaking about Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no background in infectious diseases or public health. Atlas was brought on to the White House task force in August.
Redfield testified before Congress this month that he suspects that a face covering could protect him from Covid-19 better than any future vaccine. Most public health officials share the view that masks are essential to stopping the spread of the virus. Still, Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on how useful wearing them may be.
"If every one of us did it, this pandemic would be over in eight to 12 weeks," Redfield said before offering a stark warning that contradicted the president's assertion that the country is "rounding the corner" on the pandemic.
"We're nowhere near the end," Redfield said.
In an email, a CDC spokesman said: "NBC News is reporting one side of a private phone conversation by CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield that was overheard on a plane from Atlanta Hartsfield airport. Dr. Redfield was having a private discussion regarding a number of points he has made publicly about Covid-19."
Before he joined the task force, Atlas was a frequent guest on Fox News, where he pushed to reopen the country and espoused views that more closely align with Trump's opinions during the health crisis. Since his addition to the task force, Atlas has become the medical expert who spends the most time with the president, and his profile has been elevated in recent weeks by his appearing in the White House briefing room when Trump speaks with reporters.
Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who attended near-daily briefings with the president alongside Redfield in the spring, have, at times, voiced their disagreements with Atlas as the number of coronavirus cases has surged, climbing by 22 percent in the last two weeks, according to data reviewed by NBC News. Two dozen states reported higher numbers than during the previous seven-day period. More than 204,000 people have died of the virus in the United States, with 7 million infected so far.
There is a concern among Redfield and others that Atlas continually briefs the president and misrepresents what other health experts have said in sworn testimony, according to a member of the task force.
Asked to respond to Redfield's comments, Atlas said in a statement: "Everything I have said is directly from the data and the science. It echoes what is said by many of the top medical scientists in the world, including those at Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford."
A White House official responded by saying the president "consults with many experts both inside and outside of the federal government, who sometimes disagree with one another."
"He then makes policy decisions based on all of the information to save lives and safely reopen the country," the official said, adding that "everyone, including the president, recommends wearing a mask when you cannot social distance."
Fauci and Birx declined to comment.
When the president said last week that the virus affects "virtually nobody" who is young, members of the task force, including Redfield, rejected the statement as false.
"It's not true," Redfield said in an interview. "We know that the infection is very common. We know the highest-risk group right now is 18 to 25." Redfield pointed out, however, that the president is correct in noting that mortality rates are quite low in that age group.
But "when certain other people suggest that this virus doesn't affect children," Redfield added, "they're not correct."
About a quarter of new infections right now are in people 18 to 25 years old, according to a CDC spokesman, and while they likely will not die from the coronavirus, they can easily infect older or ailing populations who are more vulnerable.
And when Redfield testified last week that 90 percent of Americans remain susceptible to the coronavirus, Atlas directly contradicted him and claimed that he had "misstated" that fact under oath. Atlas argued that Redfield was using "old" data, even though Redfield cited information from July and August when answering lawmakers' questions on Capitol Hill.
The CDC has yet to release that information publicly, but it says it will do so soon.
"The virus is likely going to continue to infect people for the foreseeable future until a vaccine is administered widely in the U.S., starting with the first doses being available in 2020 and more widely available in the second and third quarter of 2021," an agency spokesman said.
When Atlas was pressed about why Americans should listen to him instead of health experts' sworn testimony, he told NBC News' Peter Alexander: "You're supposed to believe the science, and I'm telling you the science."
It was not the first time that the president or his advisers have dismissed testimony by Redfield.
After Redfield predicted that most Americans won't receive a vaccine until the middle of 2021, Trump accused him of being mistaken and "confused." Redfield maintains that there is no distance between him and the president, but he stands by his assertion that most of the public won't receive the vaccine until the second or third quarter of next year because vulnerable populations will be prioritized and it will take significant time to roll out shots to everyone.
Atlas has made his feelings about the public health experts leading the coronavirus response widely known, occasionally accusing them of withholding "all the knowledge that we have."
"The data is out there, and we don't all have to be paralyzed with fear," Atlas said Thursday on Fox News. "We have to do very, very diligent protection of the people who are vulnerable, and those are usually older people with other comorbidities, and we need to open, because we know the harms of not opening."
Atlas has repeatedly advocated for schools to open fully, and he has urged the president to push the same stance. And while he has privately embraced the option of adopting a herd immunity strategy, according to a member of the task force, Atlas told reporters in a briefing last week that he has "never advocated a herd immunity strategy."
Trump himself presented it as a possibility in a town hall gathering this month, misstating it as "herd mentality." He suggested it after having falsely claimed that the virus would "go away without the vaccine," and he cited Atlas as someone who agrees with him that the U.S. is turning the page on the pandemic, despite Fauci's rejection of the rosy messaging.
"Well, I mean, but a lot of people do agree with me," Trump said. "You look at Scott Atlas, you look at some of the other doctors that are highly — from Stanford. Look at some of the other doctors. They think maybe we could have done that from the beginning."