How can we know that CDC chief Robert Redfield was in fact referring to Atlas if his conversation was merely overheard by a reporter?

Simple. Redfield confirmed it when the reporter asked him about it. That’s how toxic the relationship is right now between the most influential member of the president’s coronavirus task force and the head of America’s top federal agency on infectious diseases — in the middle of a global pandemic, while the population’s anxiously wondering if it can trust the forthcoming vaccine. Redfield was happy to tell the reporter whom he had in mind. “Dysfunctional” doesn’t scratch the surface of how abysmally this operation runs.

In a traditional election year we’d have already arrived at the point of debating what sort of “October surprises” might reasonably await us next month. In 2020 that seems foolish. Anything can happen. There might be a different October surprise every day for 31 days. But one potential surprise that’s easily foreseeable is that some prominent member of the federal health bureaucracy might finally throw in the towel in frustration. Trump hasn’t suffered any major defections from those ranks yet for understandable reasons. These people are all doctors, they’re up against the medical challenge of their lifetimes, they don’t want to quit on the public before the virus is subdued. And they certainly don’t want to create vacancies in prominent positions which Trump might fill with other Scott Atlases, the sort of people who’ll tell him what he wants to hear on things like masks and lockdowns and herd immunity whether it’s valid or not.

Atlas has no background in infectious diseases, remember. He’s a radiologist who got picked up by the White House because he was a regular on Fox News and offered a Trump-friendly perspective. It’d be like Obama appointing a well-known podiatrist to lead the Ebola response because he really enjoyed that guy’s MSNBC segments.

Birx is reportedly “distressed” by Atlas’s influence but is hanging on for now. Redfield sounds distressed too. Are either one of them long for this administration? Imagine the head of the CDC quitting in frustration in mid-October and then sitting for a round of interviews in which he explains why he no longer has confidence in the administration’s Atlas-led task force. What would that do for public trust in the vaccine, let alone for Trump’s electoral chances?

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…

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.

One reason why Redfield might be annoyed at Atlas is that Atlas recently humiliated him publicly by accusing him of having “misstated” the CDC’s own data on immunity among the population:

NBC notes that the data Redfield cited in testifying about immunity wasn’t “old” according to Redfield himself. It included numbers from July and August. And although Atlas is right that immunity among the population can’t be measured exclusively by the number of people have antibodies — T-cell immunity matters too — it doesn’t necessarily follow from the fact that there’s so much immunity out there that we should go ahead and get back to something resembling normal. The idea of extensive “cross-immunity” has been circulating lately among lockdown skeptics like Atlas and Rand Paul, who brought it up when grilling Fauci during testimony last week. But Fauci pointed out that a study that was published recently suggests that cross-immunity is overstated — that is, the immunity you’ve acquired from exposure to more benign coronaviruses like the common cold doesn’t make you immune to SARS-CoV-2.

The possibility of widespread cross-immunity fits the “reopen everything” narrative, though, which is why Trump brought Atlas into the White House to begin with. He wants a patina of scientific expertise in reassuring voters before Election Day that we’ve almost turned the corner on COVID and will return to normalcy soon. Fauci won’t give it to him. Birx won’t give it to him. Redfield, his own appointee, won’t give it to him. So he hired Atlas.

Now that Redfield has embarrassed the White House by badmouthing Atlas on the record, might Trump fire him? Maybe — CNN reported a few days ago that the president has “lost patience” with his CDC chief. Not for valid reasons, like the CDC’s catastrophic failure on testing in February or the agency’s latest humiliating screw-up in its guidance on COVID. For bad reasons, namely that he won’t get on-message with Trump’s campaign.

President Donald Trump has lost patience with the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, as well as with the other public health experts on his coronavirus team because their sober messaging on the future of the pandemic clashes with his rosy assessments.

Trump believes that breakthroughs are not coming swiftly enough, according to people familiar with the President’s thinking. Trump’s frustrations have caused some to question whether Redfield is on the chopping block, but a Trump adviser said they did not expect the President to make major staffing changes before the election.

The ever-looming threat, Trump’s public undermining of the CDC chief and Redfield’s tendency to fold to the White House are taking a toll on CDC staff, from top to bottom, employees say. Some have questioned whether their work is making a difference and others have even considered resigning — and whether the sagging spirits may be hampering pandemic response…

“Why spend a lot of time trying to do something that the government isn’t going to listen to or pay attention to,” this official said.

I don’t think he’ll fire Redfield before the election. Not so much because it would further shake public confidence in his handling of the pandemic, although it would. It’s because it would free an aggrieved Redfield to tell the world what he knows about political pressure being brought to bear on the CDC and the FDA by the White House. Better to keep him inside the tent for now, where he can be gagged. If Redfield wants voters to know what it’s like behind the scenes, he’ll have to take the initiative himself by quitting.

By the way, speaking of immunity across the population, the hardest-hit state in the United States is finally experiencing a bit of growth in cases after months of having a positivity rate below one percent:

New York’s experience with COVID this fall will give us a better sense of whether a brutal first wave ensures a small second wave because of broad immunity or whether we’ve been overestimating how many New Yorkers are safe from the virus because of NYC’s terrible spring. Bear in mind, though: There are already documented cases around the world of reinfection. They’re not common at the moment, but it may be that immunity from COVID has a relatively short shelf life. And it may be that New Yorkers will be the first large population here in the U.S. to find that out the hard way.