The expression “herd immunity” has received a great deal of attention lately since it was mentioned by President Trump in answer to some questions on Covid-19. The idea supposedly is that prior to approval of a vaccine for the virus, herd immunity could be considered as an alternative to handle the crisis. Herd immunity is the idea that “when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease… <this may make> the spread of the disease unlikely.” See “Herd immunity and COVID-19, (Coronavirus): What you need to know,” Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/herd-immunity-and-coronavirus/art-20486808. In other words, if enough people develop immunity, which currently in the absence of a vaccine means if enough people become infected and therefore develop immunity, the remaining population would be unlikely to acquire the disease. To take it further the concept is that the frail population most susceptible to death from the virus (probably meaning individuals in nursing homes) should be sheltered while the rest of the population goes its way ignoring the existence of the disease. This is, in my estimation, a risky proposition.
Although I am no public health expert and my information comes from reading and considering sources and medical commentary on the topic, I arrived at the conclusion that the “herd immunity” response as a deliberate policy is not appropriate and is, in fact extremely dangerous with the current raging pandemic. Readers could consider for themselves from the information below.
It should be noted proponents of the herd immunity theory have described the alternative as shutting everything down which also carries its own risks and failings. One obvious response is that it is not necessary to shut everything down as the alternative but rather to follow a policy of “safe reopening” with targeted responses as needed and especially to involve professionals who know what they are doing to advise and consult with governments, businesses, schools and the public generally to develop answers that include reopening possibilities. Since seniors and disabled persons and their families and loved ones represent a majority of my clients and these are among the most seriously affected by the disease including experiencing the most deaths these thoughts are no mere academic exercise.
One of the first things I learned is that vaccines actually work on the theory of herd immunity as well, the unstated reason being that persons receiving the vaccine develop immunity without developing the disease. These have been used to control deadly contagious diseases such as smallpox, polio, diptheria, and others. Only when a sufficient number of the population has been vaccinated and has recovered does herd immunity develop.
Difficulties with trying to acquire herd immunity through “natural infection”, that is allowing a sufficient number of people to become infected and, therefore, potentially immune are stated. These are described to include “First, it isn’t yet clear if infection with the COVID-19 virus makes a person immune to future infection…” Then herd immunity not apply anyway and huge numbers of people would be deliberately exposed s and deaths result for no benefit at all. Next “<E>ven if infection with the COVID-19 virus creates long-lasting immunity, a large number of people would have to become infected to reach the herd immunity threshold.” “Large number” is described in the article. “Experts estimate that in the U.S., 70% of the population – more than 200 million people – would have to be infected and recover from COVID-19 to halt the epidemic.” Some of those more than 200 million people regardless of age will recover, some will die, and some will experience long term serious health conditions as a result.
The Mayo Clinic article is not alone. Kaiser Health News, one of the leading nonprofit health and health policy newsrooms in the country related to the Kaiser Family Foundation, also referred to the policy as “an uncertain strategy with great cost.” See “Corralling the Facts on Herd Immunity,” https://khn.org/news/corralling-the-facts-on-herd-immunity/ They noted “<B>efore the COVID pandemic, experts can’t recall examples in which governments intentionally turned to natural infection to achieve herd immunity…” The KHN article noted “As we wait for new tools to be added to the toolbox…we have to keep reminding ourselves that there are <other> measures in this very moment that we could be using to save lives…” We should wear our masks.
Esquire, Colliton Law Associates, P.C. Janet Colliton has practiced law for over 38 years, 37 of them in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her practice, Colliton Law Associates, PC, is limited to elder law, Medicaid, including advice, applications and appeals, and other benefits planning including Veterans benefits, life care and special needs planning, guardianships, retirement, and estate planning and administration.