In the days following President Trump’s apparent recovery from COVID-19, he and his administration have returned to pushing the notion that America should fight the pandemic by attempting to achieve so-called herd immunity, rather than trying to stop the spread through the use of masks and by reducing in-person contacts.
On Sunday, one day after his doctors cleared his return to the campaign trail, Trump posted a tweet that was quickly flagged on Twitter as spreading misinformation.
“A total and complete sign off from White House Doctors yesterday. That means I can’t get it (immune), and can’t give it. Very nice to know!!!” the president wrote.
In fact, some people — very few — who have recovered from COVID-19 have been infected a second time, apparently with a mutated strain of the virus. The idea behind herd immunity is that if a high enough percentage of a population, upwards of 60 to 70 percent, is exposed to a virus and produces antibodies for it, the chain of infection will be broken.
Vaccination is one way that communities can help achieve herd immunity — which is why doctors urge patients young and old to get the flu shot each year — because it introduces a small amount of the virus into the human body, triggering the production of antibodies.
But for now, at least, a COVID-19 vaccine remains elusive and the U.S. is nowhere close to herd immunity. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 is a little less than 8 million; the actual number is believed to be considerably higher, but epidemiologists estimate that 85 to 90 percent of Americans are still susceptible to catching the disease. There have been more than 216,000 confirmed deaths from the disease in the U.S., implying a case fatality rate that could be as high as 2.74 percent. But even a much lower rate, applied to the population range still susceptible to contracting COVID-19, could result in a staggering death toll, far exceeding current fatalities.
“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic,” World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a Monday briefing. “It is scientifically and ethically problematic.”
The same day Tedros made his latest comments about herd immunity, Trump mischaracterized a statement by another WHO official in order to bolster his position that lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus should be lifted.
The World Health Organization just admitted that I was right. Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself. Open up your states, Democrat governors. Open up New York. A long battle, but they finally did the right thing!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2020
In fact, the WHO has not shifted its position, and has always stated that lockdown restrictions, while sometimes necessary, should be used as a measure of last resort.
Seizing on that apparent contradiction, the Trump administration convened a call with reporters to promote the idea that the U.S. should look to herd immunity to help put an end to the pandemic, the New York Times reported Wednesday. During that call, two officials who requested anonymity cited a petition called the Great Barrington Declaration, which calls for states to lift coronavirus restrictions for the bulk of American citizens.
“The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection,” the document states.
It is unclear how far Trump and his administration will go to push states to adopt a herd immunity approach to the virus, but as his mass campaign rallies have resumed in defiance of some state guidelines, the number of U.S. cases of COVID-19 is on the rise. Over the past two weeks, new cases have risen by 21 percent, according to the New York Times, a statistic that seems lost on the president.
“Now they say I’m immune. I feel so powerful I’ll walk into that audience,” Trump said at a Monday rally in Florida, adding, “I’ll kiss everyone in that audience.”
Yet Trump himself seemed to have been persuaded that doing nothing to stem the spread of the coronavirus was unethical. One of his favorite anecdotes over the past several months has been to take credit for reducing COVID-19 deaths that would have resulted in simply letting the virus roam free.
“Think of the number — potentially 2.2 million people if we did nothing, if we didn’t do the distancing, if we didn’t do all of the things that we’re doing,” Trump said in April.
At the same time, he has seemed enticed by the example set by Sweden, which refused to enact strong measures to slow the spread of the virus.
“You’ll develop herd — like a herd mentality,” Trump said during a town hall in Pennsylvania days before he, too, contracted COVID-19. “It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd developed, and that’s going to happen.”
Herd immunity (not herd mentality) is a tried and true epidemiological concept. A study published Tuesday in the journal Immunity concluded that COVID-19 antibodies could protect a person from reinfection by the same strain of the disease for five to seven months. But in order to achieve herd immunity for COVID-19, the U.S. must either produce vaccine or be content with letting millions more Americans contract the disease and hundreds of thousands more die from it.
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