The real horror of the “herd immunity” strategy is the human cost. To achieve 60% immunity, 200 million Americans would have to get sick.

By David Ellison Guest Contributor 

This phrase has been tossed around a lot in recent months but rarely discussed very carefully. 

It usually goes something like, “If 60-70% of the population gets infected the virus will die out and we can go back to normal.” 

The Great Barrington Declaration adds “focused protection” to the plan. This means that the vulnerable will be isolated while everyone else goes back to normal and gets infected. Once enough people are immune the virus will be unable to spread. However, this narrative glosses over several important “ifs.” 

Can we get the economy back to normal with all those at risk quarantined? 

A lot of us (anyone over 50 (36% of the population), or with high blood pressure (45%) or high blood sugar (10%), or overweight (40%)) are at higher risk. That’s about 30% of the population at home until all the young healthy folks get sick. 

We don’t know yet what sort of immunity results from a case of COVID-19. Some viruses like measles result in a very long lasting immunity. Others not so much. The antibodies to the coronaviruses that cause colds fade quickly so we are susceptible to the same cold when it comes around next year. Viruses mutate. Influenza changes its outer cover each year and we have to keep guessing what to use for next year’s vaccine. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has changed genetically as it has traveled around the world but so far not in a way that makes it more dangerous. The best way to encourage it to evolve into something more lethal would be to let it run wild through the population. 

But the real horror of the “herd immunity” strategy is the human cost. 

To achieve 60% immunity, 200 million Americans would have to get sick. Assuming the current mortality rate of about 1% that would mean at least 2 million more people would die. 

Our health care system is already stretched to capacity and could not possibly meet that challenge. Without hospital capacity the mortality would be much higher. The economic and social cost of at least 2 million dead is hard to imagine.

There are alternatives to this disastrous scenario. We may be able to safely achieve herd immunity with an effective vaccine. Experts are optimistic that by next year we will have a vaccine that will produce strong, long-lasting protection. 

But we don’t have to wait. 

We can stop the spread with proven effective methods. 

New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and others have shown that limiting the size of indoor gatherings, wearing masks in public, free testing, support for those in quarantine and for businesses that shut down can dramatically limit the spread of the virus. They’ve been able to keep the death rate down to less than one hundredth of ours and keep their economies going.

 We can do better right now.

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Editor’s note: Dave Ellison is a retired physician and surgeon, and long-time resident of the rural Pelican Rapids area. 

With his medical background, Ellison has taken a special interest in collecting and analyzing the COVID-19 pandemic data that has been generated worldwide. He has been a regular contributor to the Pelican Rapids Press.