Experts: COVID-19 herd immunity strategy could lead to 'overwhelming death and devastation'

Abby Haglage
·5 mins read

Senior Trump administration officials have reportedly endorsed a reopening strategy that hinges on exposing young, healthy people to COVID-19 in order to protect those at highest risk, the New York Times writes. The plan is aimed at achieving “herd immunity,” defined by the Mayo Clinic as when a “large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely.”

Senior White House officials have reportedly endorsed a reopening strategy aimed at reaching herd immunity. Experts tell Yahoo Life the result could "rival the 1918 flu pandemic." (Photo: Getty Images)
Senior White House officials have reportedly endorsed a reopening strategy aimed at reaching herd immunity. Experts tell Yahoo Life the result could "rival the 1918 flu pandemic." (Photo: Getty Images)

Herd immunity is typically only reached through vaccination, and experts say attempting to attain it without a vaccine — in the midst of a pandemic where as many as 95 percent of Americans aren’t immune — could be disastrous. “Two to 6 million deaths is a perfectly reasonable back-of-the-envelope calculation,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, tells Yahoo Life.

When asked about the potential loss of life that could occur from a herd immunity strategy, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services directed Yahoo Life to a series of tweets from its secretary, Alex Azar. In them, Azar mentions a meeting with Trump’s newest coronavirus adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, as well as some of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, a petition created by a subset of scientists who believe herd immunity is the best solution.

But this group of scientists — who did not reply to Yahoo Life’s request for comment — are decidedly in the minority. Schaffner, a 50-year-plus veteran of epidemiology, says taking their approach to herd immunity would be playing with fire. “If we leave it to the virus itself, we have to recognize that in many parts of the United States at present, less than 5 percent of people have been infected,” he says. “That means the virus would have to infect a vastly larger number of people to actually achieve herd immunity — at the price of huge amounts of social disruption, sickness, hospitalizations and, obviously, deaths.”

This level of illness, he says, could lead to a catastrophic loss of life. “The price would be enormous,” says Schaffner. “You would be rivaling the 1918 colossal influenza pandemic.” An estimated 50 million people worldwide died from that pandemic, including close to 700,000 people in the U.S. alone. Experts believe that roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population was infected with the virus at the time, leading to a 12-year drop in the average life expectancy rate.

Dr. Dara Kass, Yahoo Life’s medical contributor, believes there are many reasons why herd immunity could be a deadly disaster — not least of them that young, healthy people are not immune from severe illness. “There is a risk of every person getting infected passing away,” Kass says. “It may be smaller for young people than older people, but this is not a riskless infection.”

She notes that other countries, such as New Zealand, have been able to reopen by taking more serious precautions to prevent COVID-19, like enacting rigorous contact tracing programs. Meanwhile, the approach of Sweden, which set out to achieve herd immunity, has been labeled a “disaster” and a “failure,” resulting in one of the highest per capita death rates in the world.

Kass suggests that this example is even more reason to avoid it. “There is no objective evidence that this would work. None,” she says. “What these people are advocating for is a hypothetical that could result in overwhelming death and devastation, with no backing from any public health.” To employ this strategy, she says, would not only put young people at risk but force older and more vulnerable people to have to endure even more isolation — all seemingly in an effort to reopen the country more quickly. “They’re basing this on a hypothetical that makes their lives easier,” says Kass. “It’s lazy.”

Schaffner agrees that those who buy into it are missing the point. “There are always people — and I think more this time, because of the political overtones — who are dubious about the epidemic, who don’t really understand how it’s spread, and who, if they are not personally affected, don’t care very much,” he says. “We have a core of conspiracy theorists in the United States that seem to be with us. So it’s not really surprising. What is surprising is that there are people supporting it who seem to have some scientific background. I find it stunning.”

Although some may continue to argue that herd immunity has been achieved with other infections, such as measles, Schaffner says proponents of that theory are misguided. “They forget the price. Before we had a measles vaccine, 500 children died each year in the United States of measles and its complications,” he says. “That’s the price of herd immunity. Nature is fierce. It’s not benign.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

Read more from Yahoo Life:

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.