A Prescription for Death and Debilitating Illness
While talk of coronavirus herd immunity has been floating around conservative talk shows and chat groups for some time, President Trump recently brought Scott Atlas, a proponent of herd immunity, on board as a White House coronavirus adviser. Atlas, a neuro-radiologist and fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution, does not have any background in preventing or treating infectious diseases nor in epidemiology. Even so, he has been pushing the White House to embrace a herd immunity strategy that would allow COVID-19 to spread rapidly throughout the United States, while including some measures to protect the most vulnerable, including nursing home residents.
Sweden, which for the most part did not shut its economy down in response to COVID-19, pursued a similar strategy. It now has one of the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the world.
What Is Herd Immunity?
Herd immunity, also known as community immunity, refers to conditions under which a large part of the population in a given area (the “herd”) becomes immune to a specific disease, either as a result of having acquired immunity by forming antibodies while fighting off a bacterial or viral infection or through vaccination. When enough people become resistant to a particular virus, it has nowhere left to spread. Infection rates drop, and the disease peters out. While not every individual may become immune, the community as a whole is protected.
The percentage of the population that needs to become immune for purposes of achieving herd immunity varies from disease to disease. The more contagious the disease, the greater the number of individuals that would have to have become infected (or vaccinated) to stop its spread.
Because COVID-19 is highly contagious, the scientists and medical experts who study viral diseases estimate that up to 70% of the US population – more than 200 million people – would have to become infected to achieve herd immunity. This number alone is staggering, but the consequences of that many people contracting the virus are unfathomable.
How Many Americans Would Be at Risk of Serious Illness or Death under Public Health Policies Designed to Promote Herd Immunity?
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 90 million out of 246 million US adults are at a heightened risk of serious COVID-19 illness or death; 51.1 million because they are over age 65, and 41.5 million who are under age 65 but have a medical condition that predisposes them to serious COVID-19 illness or death.
If even a small fraction of this number of people were to become seriously ill with COVID-19 all around the same time, our hospital and healthcare system, which in some areas has already come dangerously close to collapse, would crater, putting the lives of all patients at risk.
Moreover, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted racial and ethnic minorities. African-American, Native American, and LatinX communities have seen higher rates of death due to higher rates of chronic medical conditions, reduced access to healthcare, and living and working conditions that predispose them to worse outcomes.
Also, while scientific understanding of the course of the disease is still in the early stages, it appears that the natural antibodies formed after contracting the infection only last about four months. While it is possible that other immune system components such as T-cells provide some longer-lasting protection, exactly how this immunity would work and for what length of time remain unknown.
Another area of concern relates to the number of “long-haulers,” the individuals who “recover” from COVID-19 but continue to experience ongoing debilitating physical and mental conditions. Doctors have identified over 50 long-term impacts including chronic fatigue; heart, lung, and kidney damage; muscle and joint pain; dizziness; memory loss; and anxiety and depression. A few patients have even endured double-lung transplants or amputations as part of their recovery. As one doctor remarked, it is as though COVID-19 leaves behind its fingerprints. No one knows whether time will erase those fingerprints, or whether they will remain permanently etched on the body’s cells and tissues.
Finally, because COVID-19 has only been on scientists’ radar screen since the latter part of 2019, its long-term effects are unknown and will not be known for years or even decades. Certain viruses, such as chickenpox, hepatitis C, and human papillomavirus (HPV) can remain dormant and hidden away in the body for years, only to erupt in some form more hideous than the original disease, such as shingles, cirrhosis, and cancers.
In light of the above, the pursuit of COVID-19 herd immunity through infection is the pursuit of long-term disease and disability, death, psychological trauma, financial hardship, and economic collapse.