I know Rob Williams well, and he is a bright and thoughtful guy. But in his call for a herd-immunity approach to taking on the COVID-19 pandemic, a potentially lethal strategy, Rob has meticulously structured an argument based only on facts (some misconstrued) that support his case and avoided facts running contrary to his argument. That’s a smart debate tactic, but it doesn’t necessarily make for smart virus-fighting.
Let me propose a few counterpoints to Rob’s endorsement of a herd-immunity approach. For starters, suggesting that more than 100,000 deaths (and growing) is a number comparable to a bad flu season is simply incorrect. In recent years, the 2017-18 flu season was the worst and, while estimates of the total death count vary, around 60,000 seems the general consensus. That’s obviously well short of 100,000-plus, with the final COVID numbers still far from being tabulated. (Incidentally, during the initial four months of the pandemic, COVID-19 ranked as the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., behind heart disease and cancer, with flu/pneumonia ranking seventh.)
Rob cites the considerable inaccuracy of the original projection of Imperial College researchers. Fair enough, but it is wrong to single out that model as the basis for COVID response measures. As Rob knows, the Imperial College researchers produced just one of a great many models, some proving more accurate than others. (At the other end of the inaccuracy spectrum, forget not President Trump’s cheery prediction of a “magical” disappearance of the virus.)
Interestingly, early projections repeatedly espoused by Drs. Fauci and Birx – 100,000 to 200,000 deaths – now appear likely to be right on the mark.
Rob is right that COVID death counts may have become muddled or inflated by so-called “co-morbidities” and other factors, but the same issues affect and presumably inflate precise flu-death counts. And most statistical analyses that I have seen have reported a death rate – deaths as a percentage of infections – at least 10 times higher for COVID-19 than for even a virulent flu type.
Rob conveniently sidesteps the issue – I’d say certainty – of collateral damage with a herd-immunity approach. Herd immunity can indeed be effective in keeping a disease at bay, but only when the immune percent of the population reaches a critical mass. Getting to that point would surely mean unnecessary hospitalizations and deaths. Rob cites Sweden, which has famously pursued herd immunity, as proof of the strategy’s effectiveness. But the jury is still far out on Sweden. In recent weeks, Sweden’s numbers have fluctuated wildly, from days of zero deaths to days of the highest per-capita death rate of any country in the world. So to declare the Swedish approach a success is, at best, premature.
Rob’s implication that social distancing is based on the experiment of a high-schooler is, well, ridiculous. Physical distancing to combat airborne disease has been repeatedly practiced in previous pandemics and studied frequently, notably in tuberculosis research in the 1930s and in the SARS outbreak of 2003. Credit if you will our young high-schooler in helping coin the 21st-century neologism, “social distancing,” but the concept of maintaining physical separation to combat diseases transmissible through human interaction is centuries old.
Rob is partly right in questioning the absolute effectiveness of masks, but, importantly, he fails to mention that we wear masks not just as a personal safeguard; masks are a shield to protect others, especially older or chronically ill people. A mask might be a far-from-perfect prophylactic, but the medical community seems in agreement that it is far from ineffective, too. Rob cites Dr. Fauci’s early skepticism about wearing masks, but the good doctor’s opinion has since changed. Just a few days ago, Fauci said that he wears a mask “to protect myself and to protect others…. That’s just the kind of thing you should be doing.” And really – how many people are driving into utility poles because of mask-induced hypoxia? Come on, Rob.
Rob is right that the lockdown has caused considerable economic and psychological distress for many people. Unfortunately, how that weighs against the death and illness a lockdown might have prevented is incalculable, both statistically and morally. Is one saved life worth, say, 10 lost jobs? 100 lost jobs? That’s the kind of unenviable moral arithmetic that people like Governor Scott have been facing.
With Vermont well into its reopening process, the two months of hardship that Vermonters have had to endure will eventually seem like a speck of time in the long run when lives, perhaps many, have been at stake. Rob could be right that severe lockdowns went too far, but that will at best become known only in hindsight, a luxury unavailable to public officials in the early stages of the pandemic. With so many early unknowns about COVID-19’s transmission and deadliness, Governor Scott and other world leaders understandably chose to take the chance of overcorrecting on the side of safety. Regardless, the results would seem to justify Governor Scott’s cautious approach. Vermont’s COVID-19 trend lines are the envy of every state in the country.
“Herd immunity costs no one a single cent,” declares Rob. Maybe so. But with such a virulent virus, the cost in lives can be considerable.
Oliver lives in Warren, Vermont.