Trump health official meets with doctors pushing herd immunity

Eufemia Didonato

A top Trump health official met Monday with a group of doctors who are proponents of the controversial “herd immunity” approach to COVID-19, even as other experts warn of its deadly and dangerous consequences.

The doctors — Martin Kulldorff, a professor of at Harvard, Sunetra Gupta, a professor at Oxford, and Jay Bhattacharya, a professor at Stanford — all whom are epidemiologists and study infectious diseases, were invited to the meeting by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Scott Atlas, an adviser to Trump who other experts have cast doubt on for his statements about COVID-19, including his endorsement of herd immunity. 

In the meeting, the three doctors told Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar that allowing the virus to spread uncontrolled among young, healthy people while protecting older adults and those at higher risk for serious illness would build up enough population-immunity to stop it from spreading widely while avoiding lockdowns and other mitigation measures that have had a damaging impact on the economy. 

“We had a very good discussion. He asked many questions and we put forth our case, to protect the people who are vulnerable and the idea of trying to do lockdowns to eliminate this disease is not realistic,” Kulldorff said. 

Other experts allowing COVID-19 to spread uncontrollably would lead to unnecessary deaths and hospitalizations, even if the U.S. isolated vulnerable people from the rest of the population while the virus spreads.  

Herd immunity is typically accomplished when enough people are vaccinated against a virus, but one has not yet been approved. 

The idea of allowing the virus to run its course is gaining traction in the White House, even as President TrumpDonald John TrumpQuestions remain unanswered as White House casts upbeat outlook on Trump’s COVID-19 fight White House staffers get email saying to stay home if they experience coronavirus symptoms White House says ‘appropriate precautions’ were taken for Trump’s outing to see supporters MORE battles his own case of COVID-19.

“It’s quite dangerous, for multiple reasons,” said William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, who noted that most experts are not pushing for continuous lockdowns everywhere all the time. 

“If you do this, you’ll get more infections, more hospitalizations, and more deaths.” 

A spokesperson for Azar did not respond to a request for comment. Atlas told The Hill in an email he attended the meeting and supports the declaration the group put out endorsing herd immunity. 

“Their targeted protection of the vulnerable and opening schools and society policy matches the policy of the President and what I have advised,” he wrote.

While Hanage agreed that a better job needs to be done of handling the unintended economic and social consequences of public health measures, he said speeding up herd immunity is not the answer, and threatens to overwhelm hospitals. 

The mainstream view of epidemiologists and public health experts, including the nation’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciDemocrats press Azar on COVID-19 efforts at testy hearing shortly after Trump tests positive Conservative operatives Jacob Wohl, Jack Burkman charged in Michigan in connection with false robocalls Monica Lewinsky calls for a mental health czar on White House coronavirus task force MORE and the World Health Organization (WHO), is that the best way to get through COVID-19 and protect people who are at highest risk for serious illness is to not get sick in the first place, by wearing masks and practicing social distancing. 

While young people are far less likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19, they’re still highly capable of spreading the disease to people who will become very sick or die. 

The doctors who met with Atlas argue against waiting for a vaccine, which isn’t expected to be widely available until next spring.

Living with public health measures for the next several months is unfeasible, given its unintended consequences for mental health, missed childhood vaccinations and the economy, the doctors told Azar.

Allowing schools, businesses, to reopen, and people to return to work rather than working from home, could build up herd immunity to a point where those public health measures aren’t necessary. 

“The alternative [to herd immunity], which is to keep suppressing the virus, comes at an enormous cost to the poor and to the young and not just in this country, but worldwide,” Gupta said. 

The crux of their argument is the data that shows children and young adults are much less likely than people over their age of 50 to die of COVID-19. 

Letting the virus spread uncontrolled among people who are least likely to become seriously ill from it will create enough herd immunity to protect the vulnerable, Gupta and the others argued. 

In the meantime, the government could provide housing to vulnerable people who live in multigenerational homes, where younger people may bring the virus home, Bhattacharya said. 

“We could do policies that would make those resources available to older people in multi-generational settings for the limited period of time that’s necessary until the disease is under control, and after time, they could go back home,” Bhattacharya said. 

People living in nursing homes, which have been ravaged by COVID-19, especially in the early days of the pandemic, could be protected with regular testing of staff and visitors.  

However, Hanage questioned the ability to successfully cordon off the most vulnerable and to protect them from getting infected, noting that the White House recently became the site of a superspreading event involving the president, despite having regular access to testing that the average American does not. 

“The greatest risk of introduction to the most vulnerable communities will be when the rate of infection is really high in younger age groups, Hanage said.

“How would you keep the virus out if 10 percent of the younger population is infected at peak prevalence and with tests that cannot keep the virus out of the White House?”

Indeed, studies have shown cases of COVID-19 increase in nursing homes when cases spike in their communities. 

He also argued that the vulnerable population would still be at risk when they return home, even if the virus is spreading at a lower prevalence. 

“We tend to make contacts with people around our own age, and given that none of the older generations would have immunity, they’d be in contact networks at risk of devastating outbreaks,” he said. 

Questions also remain about how long immunity from COVID-19 lasts after infection or whether people can become sick more than once. It’s also not known what percentage of the population needs to be infected before herd immunity is accomplished.

Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Medicine, tweeted in response to the declaration, that a large number of people vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness don’t live in nursing homes, including 50 percent of All Americans who have some sort of underlying health condition. He added that surges in cases among young people has already likely led to deaths of older, more vulnerable people, despite efforts to protect them. 

“If you’re going to turbo-charge community spread, as everyone else at ‘low-risk’ goes about their business, I want the plan for my 86-year-old mother to be more than theoretical,” he said. 

The concept of herd immunity has been discussed frequently on Fox News and is generally endorsed by conservative groups and commentators that want to see the economy fully reopen. 

Trump has recently started talking about the concept of herd mentality, erroneously calling it “herd mentality” in a recent interview. 

However, Azar told lawmakers last week during a hearing that “herd immunity is not the strategy of the U.S. Government.” 

“We may get herd slowing of transmission as we perhaps have seen in the New York area and other concentrated areas. Our mission is to reduce fatalities, protect the vulnerable, keep coronavirus cases down to the lowest level possible,” he said.

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