What is ‘herd immunity’? Can it fight COVID-19?

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – According to a White House official, a ‘herd immunity’ strategy is under the microscope as a means of fighting COVID-19. But how exactly does it work?

Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, told Madison reporters on Monday, “I think you know that one of the scientists that really believes in herd immunity is in the White House.”

Referring to adviser Scott Atlas, who was appointed in August, Birx said, “We’ve had very open, transparent and vigorous discussions about what that means.”

As explained by Jeff Pothoff, the chief quality officer at UW Health, the herd immunity approach assumes that people who get infected with COVID-19 develop antibodies preventing re-infections. Currently, experts aren’t completely sure how long antibodies can last.

But if “enough” people have antibodies, the disease doesn’t spread as easily, even if new coronavirus patients enter the mix.

“It relies on the theory that people will develop natural immunity and so many people will develop natural immunity, that the disease has a hard time spreading in a population,” he said.

For the concept to hold, Pothoff said 65 to 80 percent of the population would have to be infected.

“I think if we were to take a herd immunity strategy it would hold water about as well as a slotted spoon,” he said.

He explained, “The price of herd immunity is allowing tens of millions of Americans to come down with COVID-19, which would undoubtedly result in millions of deaths from people who didn’t make it. So [it’s a] tremendous price to pay to gain herd immunity.”

Birx told reporters, “I don’t think anyone in the United States, including the president was willing to accept that level of mortality among the individuals of Americans that we know are at higher risk of that.”

Pothoff listed more reasons why herd immunity “lean[ed] far one way with a lot of cons.” Right now, health officials don’t know enough about COVID-19 immunity to even apply it to the herd strategy. Seeing a couple cases of reinfection, he said, “that pokes a few holes into the idea that if you get it once, you’re actually immune.”

He used Sweden as a country that failed in its attempt to apply the strategy. But most recently, Sweden has not reported any deaths due to COVID-19 for more than a week.

For now, the CDC, or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends, “The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus.”

“If we each pick our own strategy, we’re less effective in getting over this pandemic, than if we band together and say, ‘this is the national strategy that we’re going to take,’” Pothoff said. “This is how we’re going to overcome this pandemic.”

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