This editorial appeared in the Washington Post.
President Donald Trump’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic is veering toward another wildly irresponsible turn. After first saying the virus would go away, then failing to properly boost the supply chains, then bungling the testing scale-up, then walking away and turning the burdens over to governors, then advocating a reopening in May that triggered a new virus firestorm, Trump has been asking questions about the strategy of relying on natural “herd immunity.” This is another way of taking a hands-off approach, protecting the most vulnerable while allowing the virus to spread until there is enough natural immunity in the population to block transmission.
Trump should ask very hard questions about this. An analysis by The Post showed that in the United States, with a population of 328 million, reaching a 65% threshold for herd immunity could lead to 2.13 million deaths. This was the pandemic approach in Sweden, and it did not turn out well.
In response to The Post’s report about these discussions, Trump’s new pandemic adviser, Scott Atlas, issued a statement through the White House denying that the president has a policy of achieving herd immunity. However, Dr. Atlas, a neuroradiologist and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, has been campaigning for more schools to open in-person classrooms, playing down testing and criticizing lockdowns.
Atlas has asserted that young people have little or no risk. “When younger, healthier people get the disease, they don’t have a problem with the disease,” he said in July. “These people getting the infection is really not a problem, and in fact, as we said months ago, when you isolate everyone, including all the healthy people, you’re prolonging the problem because you’re preventing population immunity. Low-risk groups getting the infection is not a problem.”
It is true that children are less likely to get severe cases, and mortality is low, but to dismiss the dangers as “not a problem” is reckless disregard for the adults in a society who are constantly mingling with young people. Atlas should take note of outbreaks spreading across U.S. college campuses this week; separately, the latest data from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows a 17% jump in child cases over two weeks in August. Atlas has also suggested that asymptomatic people should not be tested. This is another reckless idea; public health experts say that people without symptoms can still transmit the virus and testing should be more widespread, not less.
Ultimately, an effective vaccine or therapy can break the pandemic. Until then, what’s needed are concerted measures to slow viral transmission: wearing face masks; avoiding gatherings in enclosed spaces; testing, tracing and isolating the sick; and closures as necessary. The restrictions are hard after months of sacrifice. The economic and psychic toll is undeniable. But until a vaccine or drug arrives, there is no magic wand to make the virus disappear. Everyone must understand the virus is relentless, opportunistic, and for 180,000 Americans, so far, a real killer.