Herd Immunity: A Game of Chance

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about herd immunity in relation to COVID-19. But what is herd immunity, and what does it mean in relation to COVID-19? Can we depend on herd immunity to protect us while a viable vaccine is still likely many months away?

Herd immunity refers to a reduction in the risk of contracting a virus that occurs when a significant proportion of a population has become immune to this virus because it was previously exposed or vaccinated. If this significant proportion is immune, and thus not carrying the infection, susceptible individuals are much less likely to come in contact with infected individuals. Johns Hopkins University states that we would need at least 70% of the population, or about 200 million infections in the U.S. to achieve herd immunity for COVID-19. 

What a cost! This means that we allow the virus to flow through the population, eliminating those who are most susceptible, in order to leave the rest with antibodies in their blood stream. At the current infection and death rates we’re seeing, this would mean the U.S. population would not achieve herd immunity by 2021, and by then over half a million Americans would be dead because of the coronavirus. They tried this in Sweden, and Sweden has a terribly high death rate from the virus: double the rate of its neighbors in Scandinavia.

Scott Atlas, a new appointee in Trump’s coronavirus task force, is proposing policies that put our lives at risk. He’s a supporter of allowing for the development of herd immunity in lieu of lockdowns or closing schools or businesses. He says that isolation and shelter-in-place is actually what’s killing people, and advocates for the development of herd immunity as a way to protect from COVID-19 instead. Pushing this narrative is wildly irresponsible, and just asking for U.S. death rates to skyrocket. 

This clearly isn’t an approach with a focus on the health and safety of the population. This is an approach that prioritizes corporate profits and the economy over the lives of people in this country. The only safe way to achieve herd immunity is through an effective vaccine, given to everyone who is able to receive it.