Herd Immunity is a Baaad Idea, North Texas Doctors Say

Better to stick with mask mandates, public health officials say.
Better to stick with mask mandates, public health officials say. Photo by Jorge Salvador on Unsplash
National pandemic adviser Scott Atlas, who does not have a background in epidemiology, is pushing for the White House to implement a “herd immunity” strategy to combat the coronavirus, The Washington Post reported Monday.

Advocates for herd immunity, whereby a population becomes naturally immune to a disease via unchecked spread, argue that the approach would allow the country’s economy to reopen. Local public health experts, though, say it’s a terrible idea.

“I find the advice to pursue herd immunity for COVID to be absolutely horrifying,” said Dr. Erin Carlson, an associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington. “And I have the math to back that harsh statement.”

For herd immunity to take hold, between 60% and 80% of a population would have to become immune to the coronavirus either by vaccination or natural infection, Carlson said. From there, the virus's spread would stop.

To attain herd immunity in the United States, 200 million people would need to become infected with COVID-19, Carlson said. Not only that, but they’d have to contract the disease to the degree that they’ve developed sufficient antibodies, she said.

Carlson said that by her conservative estimates, 4 million people in the North Texas region would need to become infected to achieve herd immunity. Of those, between 250,000 and 500,000 people would likely have permanent organ damage as a result, she said.

Assuming the virus had a 1% to 2% fatality rate, Carlson said that around 40,000 to 80,000 North Texans would likely die.

Not only that, but researchers at the University of Hong Kong last week announced the world’s first known case of a coronavirus reinfection, according to Fortune. As such, North Texas deaths caused by the pursuit of herd immunity could be for nothing, Carlson said.

“We could do all of this and sacrifice 80,000 Texans and overwhelm our health care in D-FW with 800,000 hospitalizations and still not have people have enough immunity to prevent from being reinfected,” she said.

Monday, Dallas County Health and Human Services counted an additional 292 coronavirus cases. Director Dr. Philip Huang said that he would not recommend implementing herd immunity efforts in Dallas County, where other moves like masking orders and social distancing have been working.

“We still don’t even know how long of a protection there is after an infection,” he said. “There’s a lot of problems with that strategy, and a whole lot of people would get very ill and die following that sort of strategy.”

“Sweden has the highest standard of living in the world. If they can’t pull [herd immunity] off, nobody can.” - Dr. Erin Carlson, associate clinical professor at the University of Texas at Arlington

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Some public health experts fear national officials may have already sent the country down that path after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed certain guidelines last month.

The CDC is no longer suggesting that people who are asymptomatic get tested when they have been exposed to the disease, The Washington Post reported. The organization also lifted the recommendation that those who have recently traveled should self-quarantine for 14 days.

Following The Post’s report, adviser Atlas denied he’s advocated for herd immunity, even though he’s championed it in the past. The CDC’s shifts, coupled with a persistent lack of personal protective equipment, seem to indicate the country has already adopted a strategy of reaching for herd immunity, said Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health.

“Herd immunity is the implicit policy of the United States, and I think they realize it’s politically toxic and so they don’t want to use the phrase,” Gonsalves told Democracy Now! on Tuesday. “But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.”

According to The Post, Atlas has suggested letting the virus spread throughout most of the country while protecting vulnerable populations, such as those who live in nursing homes. Many at-risk populations live outside those controlled environments, though. For instance, the CDC has reported that those who are obese or diabetic or have lung or heart disease are at greater risk of dying from COVID-19 or developing severe symptoms.

Officials in Sweden have attempted to achieve herd immunity, but Carlson said that the country has unequivocally failed to do so. Officials had predicted that 40% of Stockholm's population would get the disease and develop antibodies, but only 15% did, according to a recent study published by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Carlson said that Sweden, which is a highly developed country, should serve as a sobering example of how herd immunity can go wrong.

“The cost-benefit analysis of this, based on the experiment in Sweden, does not bode well for North Texas or for the United States,” she said. “Sweden has the highest standard of living in the world. If they can’t pull it off, nobody can.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter