Nine months into the pandemic, many people in the Kansas City region and across the country are suffering from COVID-19 fatigue. Some have suggested it would be better to fully open businesses and schools without mask or social distancing requirements, letting the virus run its course in order to build herd immunity. This is an extremely risky strategy that public health officials say would have catastrophic results.
“Herd immunity” is achieved when enough people (at least 80% of the population) are no longer vulnerable to infection – either because they’ve already had the disease, or they have been vaccinated against it. Diseases that used to be common in the U.S., such as measles and chicken pox, have become rare because of robust vaccination programs that support herd immunity.
“Until we have a proven safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19, we cannot safely reach herd immunity,” said Dr. Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City Health Department. “Natural infection in large enough numbers to achieve herd immunity would come at a huge cost of human life and health. Currently we believe only five to 10% of the population has been infected with COVID, at a cost of more than 224,000 lives nationwide. Now imagine the additional 1.5 to 2 million deaths that would occur before reaching at least an 80% infection rate.”
COVID-19 has a significantly higher death rate than many other viruses – about 10 times higher than influenza, for example – and the long-term effects on those who have had COVID-19 are not yet fully understood. Additionally, the virus risk isn’t the same for everyone. Vulnerable populations, including older adults, people of color and people with preexisting conditions or limited access to health care, are at higher risk of infection and death from COVID-19.
“COVID-19 is real, it is dangerous, and we have to take it seriously,” said Dr. Erin Corriveau, deputy health officer for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas. “Until a vaccine is widely available and widely adopted, the best defense we have is to continue to wear cloth face masks in public, practice good hand hygiene and maintain social distancing of six feet or more from people who don’t live in our own households.”
As response to the pandemic has become more politically charged, some have attempted to discredit this science-based public health guidance, claiming that “focused protection” can build herd immunity. This theory recommends opening up schools, sports, restaurants and events for young, healthy people who are at less risk of serious illness, while encouraging older adults and others at higher risk to stay home. Supporters theorize that increasing natural infection among young, healthy people would effectively build herd immunity.
Local public health directors say this approach won’t stop the spread of disease and is wrong for our region. Separating those who are young and healthy from those who are more vulnerable is impractical, if not impossible. In addition, doctors have seen devastating health outcomes among some young and middle-aged people in the community who have been infected, including severe heart failure, stroke, chronic fatigue and even death.
“The idea that herd immunity can quickly put an end to the pandemic is wishful thinking,” said Corriveau. “Sweden tried this strategy last spring, and their state epidemiologist has since admitted it was wrong, causing thousands of deaths, especially in their older population.”
Allowing COVID-19 to spread unchecked in search of herd immunity would also strain the capacity of hospitals and health care providers across the region, especially with the winter flu season approaching.
“We all need to stay focused on what we know works best right now: wear a mask, wash your hands frequently and keep your distance from others, especially in indoor environments where others are not wearing masks,” Archer said. “Most importantly, get tested if you have symptoms or think you may have been exposed to the virus, and stay home if you are sick.”