Ten months into the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, there is mounting frustration that life is not back to “normal.” Many U.S. schools and businesses remain closed, people are hesitant to fly and enjoy vacations, and in many places, restaurants and indoor activities are sharply limited, with severe economic consequences.
With patience wearing thin, it may be tempting to consider policies that give us a return to normalcy, whatever the consequences.
This wishful thinking describes the recent political consideration of herd immunity, a public health term that refers to the threshold at which enough people in a community are immune to an infectious disease so it cannot spread if reintroduced. Historically, herd immunity has been achieved only through the use of vaccines. Trying to achieve herd immunity against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, without a vaccine is an idea that has come into vogue. But it is a misguided and dangerous approach that would not bring life back to normal, and would lead to the deaths of 500,000 or more Americans.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testified last week that “herd immunity is not the strategy of the U.S. government.” Yet President Trump has asserted that with increased SARS-CoV-2 spread “you’ll develop herd — like a herd mentality. It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd developed — and that’s going to happen.” Scott Atlas, an adviser on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has espoused such a plan.
It has also been reported that the White House “embraces” the Great Barrington Declaration, a statement written by three infectious disease researchers who have since been joined the thousands of co-signers. This political statement, funded by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank, calls for allowing “those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk,” until many people are infected by SARS-CoV-2 and recover — achieving the herd immunity threshold.
The declaration proposes a vague set of “Focused Protection” measures for the vulnerable older adults, including testing of nursing home staff. The declaration is simplistic and doesn’t acknowledge the scientific uncertainties of immunity to the virus, the long-term consequences of infection, or that young people can — and do — develop severe cases of Covid-19 and sometimes die from it.
This declaration profoundly underestimates the suffering that would result if this strategy were to be enacted. [Continue reading…]