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What is Herd Immunity?

How Will We Achieve It?

Author: Floyd Else, MA, LMHC (ret.), NCC, MAC

Posted on September 29, 2020


“Herd immunity occurs when enough people become immune to a disease to make its spread unlikely." The elimination of the weak--achieved by the death the elderly and others who have compromised immunity due to other health problems—is one way to protect the entire community, even those who are not themselves immune. While vaccination is a more gentle way, "herd immunity can also occur through natural infection.”  (Charles Darwin called it "natural selection", or "survival of the fittest.")

But, we do not yet have a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus.  Even when we have a new, safe, effective vaccine it may take years to reach the 90 percent vaccinated level needed to achieve herd immunity.

Some of our political leaders—governors, mayors, county executives, (usually Democrats), recommend precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by social distancing, wearing masks, frequent hand washing, etc. This doesn’t completely stop infection, but helps to lower the rate of infections and avoid overwhelming medical personnel and facilities, while giving us more time to develop a vaccine.

Other political leaders (usually Republican) minimize the risk, saying, "It is no worse than the flu."  (This Ignores CDC estimates that even with a flu vaccine--during the 2018–2019 influenza season—the flu caused more than 35.5 million illnesses, more than 16.5 million medical visits, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths nationwide).  Other leaders, with a similar message are saying, "Let’s just wait it out until we develop herd immunity."

With no vaccine, should the goal of developing herd immunity be of concern members of the general public?  Should we opt for natural infection and natural selection?  Should we attend crowded bars and restaurants?  Should we risk our lives to help the economy recover and achieve Herd Immunity more quickly? 

The Seattle Times reported as of September 25, 2020, COVID-19 in Washington State, of a total of 85,830 confirmed cases,  and 2,100 Deaths. Deaths by age: 2% were between the ages of 20 to 39, 9% between the ages of 40-59 years old.

The chances that an infection with the virus will kill you increases with age and other medical conditions you may have. 

38% of those who have died are ages 60 to 79, and 51% of the total deaths were persons over the age of 80. So, 89% of deaths are to people between 60 to 80+ years old. 

There are many ways to personalize this: For young parents, reaching  herd immunity could mean no longer expecting your parents or grandparents to be available for babysitting—because they are already dead or dying, or they are alive and socially isolating even from grandchildren who at any time might become asymptomatic carriers of the virus.  The whole concept is scary and unpleasant to think about.

Because of the large number of elderly voters who vote conservative, I can give no credence to the crazy conspiracy theory that Republicans—who need your vote--are out to kill you, although that appears to be an accidental outcome of their policies.  

Rather, I think their striving for herd immunity is a natural outcome of their conservative beliefs in rugged individualism, and protecting individual rights which leads them to permit or to encourage activities that are fun and perhaps ill-advised, without regard for their health and well-being or the health of anyone else in the community, including you!

And from another point of view, the CDC has estimated that so far only about 3 to 4 percent of the population has been infected by the coronavirus.  This means as many as 96% of us are still “coronavirus virgins.”  And many, including me, prefer to keep it that way as long as possible.

For me, at the ripe old age of 83, with other medical concerns, my personal approach to Herd Immunity is a matter of survival, not politics.  I chose “not to die” if I can avoid it; will get my other vaccinations (the flu and pneumonia still out there killing people), practice social distancing, wear a mask in public places, eat right, exercise, wash my hands frequently, get enough rest, and pray for God’s mercy.

And when the FDA approves a vaccine, I will get one as soon as it is available to me.  Until then, I welcome the help and support of my thoughtful, considerate, fellow citizens who chose to avoid infecting the rest of us.

Be careful, stay well, and stay least 6 feet!

Floyd Else, 83, Webmaster, is a retired mental health counselor and substance abuse counselor who lives in Bellevue, Washington.

PS: What did I tell you!
One week after the presidential election and US is experiencing 100,000 new COVID-19 cases each day and the Associated Press reports, “Voters in 93 percent of the 376 counties with the highest per capita number of coronavirus cases overwhelmingly wen for Trump.  Most of the counties were rural—in Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and Wisconsin.” Reported in THE WEEK, Nov. 20, 2020.


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