IDEAS: Give up on flawed ‘herd immunity’ theory and wear a mask

This guest opinion column by Kurt Fleagle, an internal medicine physician in Kettering, appeared on the Ideas and Voices page Thursday, Oct. 29. A column by Danielle Fredette, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cedarville University, appeared the same day. Fredette’s column and others on the subject are linked below.

As we all try to figure out ways to deal with the new reality of living with COVID-19 as an everyday fear, we are hearing more about a concept to eradicate the spread of the disease called herd immunity.

Basically this concept involves exposing younger, healthier people to the virus by letting them move more freely throughout society in hopes that they will get the disease. At the same time, it espouses sheltering the older and more chronically ill population.

The theory is that the more the disease spreads through the younger population, more people will be immune and COVID-19 will not thrive as it has no one to infect anymore.

Herd immunity is typically a term used when a large portion of the population has been vaccinated against a disease. Researchers have estimated that 60-70% of the population would have to be vaccinated/infected before herd immunity would go into effect.

We are nowhere near that number.

The theory of herd immunity has gained traction at the White House in President Trump’s speeches and by statements made by Coronvirus Task Force member/neuroradiologist/not-an-infectious-disease specialist Dr. Scott Atlas.

However, it is a dangerous concept for many reasons. Although young people have a lower risk of hospitalization and death than older people, they can still become significantly ill, often with long-lasting after-effects like fatigue, headaches, mental fogginess, and heart disease that keep them from school or work for months and months.

The concept that young people can be isolated from the more vulnerable is not as easy as the proponents of herd immunity make it sound. Young people work in nursing homes, senior citizen centers, restaurants, and grocery stores and encounter seniors everyday.

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Forty percent of patients with COVID-19 are asymptomatic so they may not even know they have it. Many elderly and chronically ill patients live with their families and cannot properly isolate from others within one household.

There is still much we don’t know about COVID-19. If immunity does spread through a population from person to person contact, how long does that immunity last?

Is it 3 months?

Is it a year?

Will reinfections (of which there have been a small number worldwide) cause hospitalizations and deaths in people who thought they were immune?

COVID-19 is not the flu. It is more lethal.

The World Health Organization estimates that 290,000 to 650,000 people worldwide die of flu yearly.

From January 2020 through October 21, 2020, there have been 1,126,142 deaths worldwide from COVID-19. We can achieve an immunity that makes us safer that is ethical and respectful of the lives around us and that is through getting a vaccine.

Until that time comes, avoid large groups, keep six feet of distance from others, and wear a mask.

Kurt Fleagle is an internal medicine physician practicing in Kettering. He is a graduate of Wright State University School of Medicine. Guest columns are submitted or requested fact-based opinion pieces typically of 300 to 450 words.

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