Letters From an American

Trump’s New Mantra: Herd Immunity

Trump's New Mantra: Herd Immunity

Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks as US President Donald Trump listens during the daily press briefing on the Coronavirus pandemic situation at the White House on March 17, 2020 in Washington, DC. - The coronavirus outbreak has transformed the US virtually overnight from a place of boundless consumerism to one suddenly constrained by nesting and social distancing.The crisis tests all retailers, leading to temporary store closures at companies like Apple and Nike, manic buying of food staples at supermarkets and big-box stores like Walmart even as many stores remain open for business -- albeit in a weirdly anemic consumer environment. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

October 13, 2020

While the media is focused on the predetermined hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court seat formerly held by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the big story of the day is the resurgence of coronavirus.

The nation is back up to more than 50,000 new cases a day, the highest rate since early August, and numbers are continuing to rise. The states currently suffering worst are those in the northern Midwest — Wisconsin, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota — but more than 30 states are reporting rising numbers. Wisconsin is so overwhelmed with cases it’s opening a field hospital this week, and it seems that Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma are right behind.

More children are being diagnosed with Covid-19, as well, making up more than 77,000 new infections.

The White House has abandoned the idea of controlling the virus and instead is openly embracing the idea of “herd immunity.” Officials are arguing that the nation should protect our most vulnerable neighbors — the elderly and the infirm — and the rest of us should go about our lives normally, without waiting for a vaccine.

While the White House has been saying this for months, it now has a group of scientists advancing the plan in a document called The Great Barrington Declaration. This idea is being pushed by the libertarian American Institute for Economic Research, and scientists whose work has been dismissed by most epidemiologists. It offers no data or scientific argument; it is a political opinion.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called the plan “unethical” because it “means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death.” He explains that the concept of herd immunity is one used for vaccines, achieved “by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it.” “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic,” he said. “It is scientifically and ethically problematic.”

The idea of simply letting the infection spread is not popular among Americans, especially among the seniors Trump needs to win Florida. In 2016, seniors preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton by 49% to 44%. Now they are turning to Biden rather than Trump by 54% to 43%. Weirdly, Trump took to Twitter today to post a tweet apparently making fun of Biden by picturing him as a resident of a senior home — not calculated to win over more older Americans.

This approach reinforces the idea the president is trying to push after his own bout with coronavirus: that the illness is not a big deal and that those who say it is are simply trying to hurt his chances of reelection. At the Barrett hearings, Republican Mike Lee of Utah, recently diagnosed with coronavirus, refused to wear a mask. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows also refused to wear one when talking with reporters, apparently concerned about being filmed in a mask when the official White House position was to downplay the virus.

Meanwhile, another official who attended the celebration for Barrett at the Rose Garden on September 26 has tested positive for the virus.

America leads the world in infections and deaths. Globally, at least 38 million cases of Covid-19 have been recorded as of 6:30 this evening. More than a million people have died. America has had at least 7,850,000 cases and more than 215,000 deaths.

As horrific as those numbers are, an article published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association says they are far too low. Dr. Steven Woolf, the author of the study, says that “for every two Americans that we know of who are dying of Covid-19, another American is dying.” Woolf looked at what are called “excess deaths” from March through July, that is, the increase over the average number of deaths expected in those months. He found 225,530 excess deaths. Sixty-seven percent of those deaths are linked directly to Covid-19, but the remaining 33% are unexplained, suggesting this unusual spike is related to the pandemic.

Erika Edwards of NBC News highlighted this study today, along with another in the same issue of the JAMA that compares US death rates to those of other wealthy countries. The US ranked poorly. According to the article, our Covid-19 mortality rate is 60.3 per 100,000 people. Canada’s rate is 24.6 per 100,000, and Australia’s was 3.3 deaths per 100,000. If we had had the same rate as Canada, we would have lost 117,000 fewer people, and 188,000 Americans would have been saved if we had the same death rate as Australia.

The good news is that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said today that vaccine development is “on a really good track.” Two vaccines have been put on hold as a volunteer in each trial has gotten sick, but Fauci says this is not at all unusual. He says he hopes that by November or December we should know if we have a safe and effective vaccine. If so, it will be distributed first to those who need it most, but will gradually become available to the rest of us.

Once again, Dr. Fauci reminded us to wear masks, maintain physical distance from others, avoid crowds, stay outside when possible, and wash hands. “Those simple things, as simple as they sound, can certainly turn around the spikes that we see and can prevent new spikes from occurring,” Fauci told Shepard Smith on CNBC Monday night. “We know that because our experience has proven to us that that is the case. We just need to hunker down and do that.”

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.