Jul 10, 2020 - Health

The U.S.' new default coronavirus strategy: herd immunity

Illustration of a shield in a hole in the ground. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

By letting the coronavirus surge through the population with only minimal social distancing measures in place, the U.S. has accidentally become the world’s largest experiment in herd immunity.

Why it matters: Letting the virus spread while minimizing human loss is doable, in theory. But it requires very strict protections for vulnerable people, almost none of which the U.S. has established.

The big picture: Cases are skyrocketing, with hospitalizations and deaths following suit in hotspots. Not a single state has ordered another lockdown, even though per capita cases in Florida and Arizona have reached levels similar to New York and New Jersey’s in April.

  • Most states never built up the testing, contact tracing and isolation systems it would take to prevent the virus from spreading widely, and and health care workers are once again facing shortages of protective medical gear.
  • The Trump administration is generally ignoring or downplaying soaring caseloads across the South and West, and is pushing schools to fully reopen in the fall.
  • In Florida, where infections, hospitalizations and deaths are surging, Gov. Ron DeSantis “has repeatedly ruled out a sweeping mask mandate or taking the state back into a lockdown to stem the virus, although local governments have acted on their own,” per Bloomberg.

Between the lines: Separating older, sicker people from younger, healthier ones while the virus burns through the latter group could be a way to achieve herd immunity — assuming immunity exists — without hundreds of thousands of people dying.

  • But the U.S. hasn’t adopted such a strategy with any planning or foresight. Although younger people make up a larger portion of coronavirus cases now than they did earlier in the pandemic, vulnerable people still go to work or live with non-vulnerable people.
  • Frontline workers have generally been left unprotected, contributing to disproportionate caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths among people of color.
  • Even nursing homes are still vulnerable to outbreaks. Nursing home deaths have continued to climb in Florida, Georgia, Texas, South Carolina and California, the Atlantic recently reported.

Yes, but: Some cities and states, particularly in the Northeast, are focused on containing the virus rather than living with it.

  • "We're not going to go back to that dark place because local government didn't do its job or because some individuals exploited the situation besides the legal violation," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last month, following tens of thousands of complaints about businesses not abiding by public health restrictions.

The bottom line: The U.S. may become the world’s largest herd immunity experiment, but it’s not the first.

  • The United Kingdom briefly flirted with this strategy before abandoning it in favor of containment.
  • Sweden embraced the model and, as the NYT reported earlier this week, saw thousands more deaths than its neighbors with nothing to show for it economically.
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