I have been asked by many to explain what we are reading about, something called herd immunity. So here goes with my best shot at a moving target.
Building up herd immunity would mean relaxing all the social restrictions associated with this pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus, letting less-vulnerable people become infected with the virus and developing antibodies to it. This leaves the virus with nowhere to go, and no one to infect.
Sounds good, gets the economy back on track, opens up small businesses. The problem is this virus kills young, healthy individuals as well as us old guys.
Other problem is thatexperts say that to have herd immunity means 60-80% of people have to have been infected since there is no vaccine available. We are talking over 200 million Americans, and of those 2% or more will die. That is 4 million deaths. Are we ready for that?
The social distancing now in place was an effort to allow the health care system to develop capacity, get Personal Protective Equipment in place, figure out where ventilators were most needed, create overflow hospital beds, etc. The good news is that it has worked.
Social distancing is also intended to buy time to develop a vaccine.
A vaccine is probably the only way we will ever create enough immune Americans to create herd immunity. Until then, we are all vulnerable.
Problem number one is that this virus is a result of the ever present coronavirus having mutated to the novel coronavirus to which none of us have ever been exposed. We are virgins. We have zero immunity.
If we create a vaccine in the next year, or if we are infected and develop antibodies, how long will the protection last before the virus mutates again?
No one knows.
With childhood viruses like measles, mumps and rubella, immunity lasts a life time.
Let’s focus on measles for a minute or two.
Measles is highly contagious. In the old days it was thought 90% of the population had to have antibodies to develop herd immunity to keep it from spreading.
We created a vaccine. We wiped out measles. Then many parents thought there might be a link between the vaccine and autism and claimed religious reasons for not vaccinating their young kids.
We now see measles outbreaks because we have lost herd immunity.
If every single one year old was vaccinated, some would not develop antibodies, but they were protected by herd immunity. When they went to kindergarten, kids around them were immune and the virus could not live.
Back when the Earth’s crust was still cooling off, no mother wanted her kids to have chicken pox or the mumps when they were adults when the results could be much more serious.
So when I was growing up they had chicken pox and mumps parties.
Neighborhood kid got infected, we all went over to play and get exposed. Mom did not know it, but she was creating herd immunity before we had vaccines that would do that.
Of course those viruses were not as lethal as this one, so it was actually a very good idea.
Another example of herd immunity, or lack thereof, is smallpox, a virus with a much higher morbidity rate than the pox or mumps.
Smallpox would get into a community and infect the youngest children, scaring the heck out of parents who were immune because of prior infections in their own youth.
Herd immunity would develop and the virus would not reappear for several years until there were many more “virgin” kids.
Native Americans had never seen this virus, just like we have never seen COVID-19.
When the Europeans began to settle America, tribes were decimated by smallpox. We should take heed from that lesson as we begin to loosen up our social restrictions.
As to the COVID-19 virus, 55% of those hospitalized are under 65, and 20% of those who die are also under 65.
Researchers trying to figure out this new virus predict a second wave in the fall.
That means, football season in Nebraska.
Hopefully more testing and contact tracing will be available by then, maybe even a vaccine along with an antiviral drug such as we are seeing used experimentally with some hope even now.
In the meantime, the thought of just ripping off the Band-Aid and saying we can get back to the “old normal” does not have much appeal for me.
We do not have herd immunity, and we are nowhere near that goal.