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Herd immunity strategy could ‘result in thousands, if not millions’ more deaths

A sign on the door of Bowlmor Lanes requires guests to wear face masks on August 21, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

Dr. Scott Atlas, a new top COVID-19 adviser, is denying reports that he was pushing the president to adopt a herd immunity approach to fight the virus. Columbia virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a weekly guest of KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show, explains why a herd immunity strategy isn’t feasible right now for the United States.

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“Scott Atlas is a neuroradiologist from Stanford University,” she said. “I assume that he’s respected in that field, but it should be noted that that field has absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with infectious disease.”

He’s been brought in to help advise the White House Coronavirus Task Force on how the country should be approaching its strategy to limit the spread of the virus.

“There are reports that other folks, other scientists, other positions on the Coronavirus Task Force, such as Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Tony Fauci, have sort of been sidelined in favor of Scott Atlas because he is more willing to promote strategies for management that will allow us to basically reopen with fewer restrictions,” Rasmussen said.

The herd immunity strategy, she explained, would basically be a return to normal with the idea being that everybody who’s going to get infected is getting infected.

“And that will somehow allow us to all become immune,” she added. “… I mean, that is how vaccines work. And herd immunity is when enough people in the population have protective immunity that a virus can’t spread within them. But the problem is, we also have several reports this past week of people being re-infected with the coronavirus, which suggests, at least in some cases, people aren’t developing protective immunity.”

It is also not known how many people would be susceptible to coronavirus after being infected once.

“So this is a really unproven strategy, and the bottom line is that it would result in thousands and potentially even millions of deaths and long-term clinical consequences for people getting coronavirus when they would otherwise be trying to reduce their risk of transmission,” Rasmussen said.

Depending on how many people have already been infected in a given community, the case numbers and deaths would vary. Additionally, it’s still unclear if those who are reinfected are at risk of more severe illness.

“We don’t know if being infected once with coronavirus, even if you get infected again, if that means your disease will be more or less severe, or whether it will make a difference,” Rasmussen said. “There’s still a lot we don’t know. But one thing we do know is that the majority of people in the U.S. have not been infected with coronavirus.”

“So if you’re assuming that 60-70% of those people have to be infected to develop protective immunity then that suggests that millions more people need to be infected with coronavirus to even think about this strategy seriously,” she added. “And just at scale, that will result in thousands, if not millions, more deaths.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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