WASHINGTON — In late September, a Nobel Prize-winning economist emailed Dr. Scott W. Atlas, a White House coronavirus adviser, in what he saw as a last-ditch effort to persuade the Trump administration to embrace a sharp increase in testing and isolating infected patients. The plan, meant to appeal to a president who has complained that positive tests make his administration look bad, would not “generate any new confirmed cases.”
Dr. Atlas, a radiologist, told the economist, Paul Romer of New York University, that there was no need to do the sort of testing he was proposing.
“That’s not appropriate health care policy,” Dr. Atlas wrote.
Dr. Atlas went on to mention a theory that the virus can be arrested once a small percentage of the United States population contracts it. He said there was a “likelihood that only 25 or 20 percent of people need the infection,” an apparent reference to a threshold for so-called herd immunity that epidemiologists have widely disputed.
The call for more widespread testing and isolation, Dr. Atlas wrote, “is grossly misguided.”
The exchange highlights the resistance in the White House toward adopting a significantly expanded federal testing program, including efforts to support infected patients in isolation and track the people they have been in contact with, even as cases and deaths continue to rise nationwide. That resistance has become a sticking point in negotiations over a new economic stimulus package, with the administration and top Democrats yet to agree on the scope and setup of an expanded testing plan.
Many public health experts, and some economists like Mr. Romer, say that