What Fans of "Herd Immunity" Don't Tell YouRoundup
tags: public health, pandemics, COVID-19, herd immunity
Mr. Barry is the author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.
No matter their politics, people nearly always listen to those who say what they want to hear.
Hence, it is no surprise that the White House and several governors are now paying close attention to the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a proposal written by a group of well-credentialed scientists who want to shift Covid-19 policy toward achieving herd immunity — the point at which enough people have become immune to the virus that its spread becomes unlikely.
They would do this by allowing “those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally.” This, they say, will allow people “to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.”
These academics are clearly a distinct minority. Most of their public health colleagues have condemned their proposal as unworkable and unethical — even as amounting to “mass murder,” as William Haseltine, a former Harvard Medical School professor who now heads a global health foundation, put it to CNN last week.
But who is right?
The signers of the declaration do have a point. Restrictions designed to limit deaths cause real harm, including, but by no means limited to, stress on the economy, increases in domestic violence and drug abuse, declines in tests that screen for cancer and on and on. Those living alone suffer real pain from isolation, and the young have every reason to feel bitter over the loss of substantive education and what should have been memories of a high school prom or the bonding friendships that form in a college dorm at 2 a.m. or on an athletic team or in some other endeavor.
So the idea of returning to something akin to normal — releasing everyone from a kind of jail — is attractive, even seductive. It becomes less seductive when one examines three enormously important omissions in the declaration.
First, it makes no mention of harm to infected people in low-risk groups, yet many people recover very slowly. More serious, a significant number, including those with no symptoms, suffer damage to their heart and lungs. One recent study of 100 recovered adults found that 78 of them showed signs of heart damage. We have no idea whether this damage will cut years from their lives or affect their quality of life.
Second, it says little about how to protect the vulnerable. One can keep a child from visiting a grandparent in another city easily enough, but what happens when the child and grandparent live in the same household? And how do you protect a 25-year-old diabetic, or cancer survivor, or obese person, or anyone else with a comorbidity who needs to go to work every day? Upon closer examination, the “focused protection” that the declaration urges devolves into a kind of three-card monte; one can’t pin it down.
Third, the declaration omits mention of how many people the policy would kill. It’s a lot.
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