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Herd immunity, a recipe for further disaster


Consider the number 675,000 for a moment. That’s the number of people in the United States who died during the flu pandemic of 1918-19. Could the U.S. be headed for such widespread death again?

At press time, nearly 220,000 Americans had died of Covid-19, only eight months into this pandemic. The coronavirus could very well be with us for months to come, perhaps through the end of 2021. What will the death toll be in six months, 12 months, 18 months? It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to believe we could reach 400,000, 600,000 deaths or more if a safe and reliable vaccine isn’t found soon.

Each death represents someone’s mother or father, brother or sister, friend or colleague. Each death is a tragedy, an extinguishment of life that was, in all too many cases, avoidable — if not for the policies of the Trump administration.

From the start, President Trump downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus, even though he understood its severity as early as February. When we should have been locking down nationally, as New Zealand did in March, we remained open for business in most parts of the country, and the virus spread from transportation hubs like New York and California across the country. There was never a complete travel ban from China early this year, as Trump has claimed — American citizens and permanent residents flew back and forth at will between China and the U.S. And Trump has eschewed masks all along, even though mask wearing would improve safety as the U.S. continues to open up.

Now the Trump administration is weighing, and in many ways pursuing, its potentially most dangerous policy of all — herd immunity, the ill-advised, frankly inane notion that we can beat the coronavirus by allowing healthy young people to become infected. If enough people do so and develop immunity to the virus, the thinking goes, it will disappear.

Reputable scientists tell us, however, that herd immunity requires at minimum 50 to 60 percent of the population to be infected, and that it cannot be achieved without a vaccine.

But let’s suppose for a moment that we, as a nation, were to pursue a herd-immunity course through natural infection, and 60 percent of Americans — or 196 million people — were to get the coronavirus. Think about the astronomical death total that would likely result.

To date, 8.17 million Americans have reportedly been infected with Covid-19. That’s 2.5 percent of the population. In widespread testing in late September, 1 in 10 Americans had Covid-19 antibodies, according to the Stanford University Medicine News Center. That is, we’re a long way from herd immunity.

Pursuing herd immunity in the absence of a vaccine is a recipe for a death toll not seen in a pandemic since 1918-19. Listen to the reputable scientists: Wear a mask in public. Keep your distance. Wash your hands frequently. Work from home if you can.