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'Herd immunity' idea rears its head again — and still deserves to be struck down

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Although he's reluctant to say it out loud, President Donald Trump appears to be disturbingly close to embracing the ideas behind "herd immunity," which in my view has been best described as the "let 'em die" strategy.

Put simply, herd immunity describes conditions in which enough people are immune to an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, to provide indirect protection to those who are not immune.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, if you already have a vaccine and the ability to conduct a mass immunization program. That's how we licked polio, measles, smallpox and numerous other communicable diseases.

Trying to build herd immunity without a vaccine, however, is about as sensible as roller skating blindfolded along the edge of the Grand Canyon.

But as much as he has largely avoided using the phrase "herd immunity," the president has mocked masks and keeps urging America to "open up" to rescue the economy, which fits well with the small subset of scientists who have an important ally in the White House, Dr. Scott Atlas. The neuroradiologist has no background in infectious diseases, yet he has become one of Trump's top health advisers, all but nudging aside actual infectious disease experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci.

And, as much as the herd immunity approach without a vaccine has been roundly rejected by scientists worldwide, the White House gave the idea new legs on Tuesday, according to The New York Times, when the administration endorsed a document called the Great Barrington Declaration.

Written by three academics with views that run contrary to mainstream scientific opinion, the strategy involves allowing the virus to spread through the population while trying to shield the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions.

Since I happen to be in that senior citizen group with a preexisting health condition, I take great personal interest in this story.

I took similar interest in a recent study from Stanford University that found less than 10% of the U.S. population has antibodies to the new coronavirus. That means about 156 million more Americans would need to get infected to reach an estimated 50% threshold for herd immunity from natural infection.

And that's just one of many estimates for fighting this new disease at a time when experts are still learning about what might make a patient like Trump immune or how long immunity lasts.

After experiencing the sorrow of more than 8 million cases in this country, it is breathtaking to imagine 156 million.

Yet Trump, who receives higher quality health care than almost anyone on the planet, offers little comfort with his cavalier attitude toward masks, among other sensible precautions.

"I'm OK with masks — I tell people, 'Wear masks,' " he said in his Thursday night town hall event on NBC, televised at the same time his Democrat challenger Joe Biden participated in a town hall on ABC. Yet he couldn't resist adding the false statistic he said he heard "just the other day" that 85% of the people wearing masks contract the virus.

That is wrong, but I'm sure he made people who refuse to wear masks, particularly those who are in his base, feel good.

"Open your states," he declared to a Wednesday rally in Iowa. "The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself."

He's been using that line since mid-March. But, his happy talk was somewhat chilled by Pfizer's announcement Friday that the pharmaceutical company would not apply for emergency authorization of its coronavirus vaccine before the third week of November, too late to meet the president's assertion that a vaccine would be ready before Election Day.

"Remember, when you catch it, you get better, and you're immune," he said in a Fox News interview last week. I'm happy for his good fortune. But his cheer defies his stunning lack of conclusive research and the cruel reality that hundreds of thousands have died after contracting it.

I feel very fortunate in these pandemic times to be able to work from home through the internet. But we cannot survive for long as a society that is half-online and half stuck with workers exposed to the virus.

Rushing ourselves through a transition to post-pandemic living while there's still a pandemic, though, is a recipe for even more economic catastrophe. As the president said, the cure should not be worse than the disease. But the disease is still bad enough for us to respect its power, even as we try to cure it.

Clarence Page is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

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