The United States has just surpassed 64,000 coronavirus infections daily, a high not seen since July. We are about to surpass the threshold of 220,000 Americans dead from the COVID-19 pandemic. The president has contracted the virus after holding a “super spreader” event at the White House in honor of Judge Amy Coney Barrett where at least 34 White House staffers and others connected to the event -- more than originally thought -- became infected.
But instead of using the opportunity to finally implement a national strategy to slow the virus by using testing, masking, socials distancing, and contact-tracing, Trump administration officials are instead embracing “herd immunity” as the answer. They are playing with fire.
There is no question Americans are tired of the quarantines, the lockdowns, and the disruptions that COVID-19 has brought to daily life. We are all tired of living in fear. President Trump said recently at a town hall meeting in Philadelphia that the coronavirus is “going to disappear . . . you’ll develop -- like a ‘herd mentality’-- it’s going to be -- it’s going to be ‘herd-developed’ and that’s going to happen. That will happen.”
Trump’s misuse of language (he meant “herd immunity”) would be a good laugh if this did not signal that he was on the way to officially adopting a national policy that will intentionally kill millions of Americans. Herd immunity for COVID-19 at this time is nothing less than dangerous quackery while the virus will rage on instead of disappearing.
What exactly is herd immunity? Herd immunity occurs when most of the individuals in a community are immune to a disease so that if a virus attacks there are not enough susceptible individuals to spread the infection. There are only two ways to reach herd immunity. One is naturally, through people recovering from infection, and the other is through immunization with a vaccine.
There are problems with coronaviruses and herd immunity. A major cause of the common cold, variations of this virus have been around forever. Nevertheless, we have never developed herd immunity to the common cold. Perhaps it may be that immunity to this new coronavirus, when it occurs, lasts for a short time -- maybe only a few months.
We also know that, contrary to what the president has stated, it is possible, though as of now, rare -- to become re-infected with COVID-19, as it has happened in a handful of cases. As such, we do not know if anyone that has contracted COVID-19 is, in fact, immune.
Moreover, to achieve herd immunity, 70-90% of the community must be infected and develop resistance to the disease. In the United States that would mean over 200 million Americans would have to be infected with the virus. With a 1% mortality rate, which is optimistic (some researchers peg the mortality rate closer to 3%), that means that over 2 million people would die and the data shows that they would be mostly older Americans – and disproportionately Blacks and Hispanics.
A vaccine is designed to accomplish the same thing and be far safer than natural immunity from infection. However, Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control, said that it will take until next year before a vaccine is widely available. Even when a safe and effective vaccine is available, getting 200 million Americans to take it to and develop herd immunity will be a challenge.
Many people distrust vaccines in general, and political pressure on the FDA to rapidly approve a COVID-19 vaccine makes Americans wary. Will it truly be safe, or was it rushed simply for political purposes? Other viral illnesses like measles, mumps, chicken pox and even the flu have not “gone away” despite having vaccines available for decades. COVID-19, like the rest of the coronavirus family, is likely to be with us for a very long time.
Allowing the disease to run amok through the population in hopes of developing herd immunity would be foolhardy and arguably murderous. Sweden tried, killed many elderly Swedes, and is recalibrating its entire approach.
Instead of listening to the sound advice of the medical community and the scientists and experts that the president has as his disposal, the administration has embraced some extreme and non-conventional ideas supposedly backed by scientists but who have not made any of their names public. So far, the doctors the White House is embracing are declaring that herd immunity can be achieved when 10-20% of the population has been infected – a concept that the majority of the epidemiologist community disagrees with.
We need leaders who will be honest with the public and that trust the scientists to develop a safe and effective vaccine. The process cannot be rushed, or it will not be believed. Trump has lost the public’s confidence in anything having to do with the coronavirus. We need new leadership at the White House. In the meantime, please wear your mask.