There has been a consistent drumbeat of those who want to lift all restrictions in order to achieve “herd immunity.” Just today, the Washington Post reports that a new Administration pandemic medical adviser has been advocating this very thing: “One of President Trump’s top medical advisers is urging the White House to embrace a controversial “herd immunity” strategy to combat the pandemic, which would entail allowing the coronavirus to spread through most of the population to quickly build resistance to the virus, while taking steps to protect those in nursing homes and other vulnerable populations, according to five people familiar with the discussions.”
What is “herd immunity”?
“Herd immunity” is the concept in public health that, if enough people are immune to a particular infectious disease, then the disease will stop spreading among a population.
“Herd immunity” is the foundation upon which vaccination works: vaccinate enough people against the disease so that it stops spreading. This is how we have all but eliminated childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, and the like.
It’s easy to talk about “herd immunity” from a conference room. I’ve seen death from COVID-19 with my own eyes. It is horrific.
With COVID-19, there are those who are advocating the same thing without a vaccine: lift restrictions, have life return to normal, and enough people will get the disease to achieve “herd immunity.” Never mind that we still don’t know how long immunity to COVID-19 lasts.
Never mind that we know that you CAN get COVID-19 more than once. Never mind that other countries — most notably Sweden — have tried to do the same thing and have had significantly higher death rates.
Still, “herd immunity” is an abstract concept, and so let me put it in more concrete terms. The Washington Post did the math for us (emphasis added):
Estimates have ranged from 20 percent to 70 percent for how much of a population would need to be infected. Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, said given the transmissibility of the novel coronavirus, it is likely that about 65 to 70 percent of the population would need to become infected for there to be herd immunity.
With a population of 328 million in the United States, it may require 2.13 million deaths to reach a 65 percent threshold of herd immunity, assuming the virus has a 1 percent fatality rate, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
Think about that for a moment. As of the writing of this post, Johns Hopkins reports 183,203 deaths in the U.S. And so, for us to achieve “herd immunity,” 1,946,797 more people have to die. The number of deaths has to increase by nearly 12 fold to achieve this coveted “herd immunity.”
That is A LOT OF DEATH.
It’s easy to talk about “herd immunity” from a conference room. I’ve seen death from COVID-19 with my own eyes. It is horrific. It is an unspeakable tragedy. It is pain and distress that no one should have to experience.
That’s 2,130,000 family tragedies. That’s 2,130,000 husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and cousins who are lost to this pandemic. It’s easy to talk about it…but talk is very cheap.
I am neither naive nor ignorant about the challenges that come with locking down our economy and schools to crush the virus. I recognize that each comes with their own devastation (“would you rather die of starvation or die of COVID?”). There are no easy answers to this scourge, and I do not even begin to profess that I know what those answers are.
At the same time, I just want people to know what achieving “herd immunity” could look like: it could be a path littered with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more deaths in this country.