Editorial: Coronavirus ‘herd immunity’ is just another way to say ‘let people die’

Dr. Scott Atlas, right, President Donald Trump's new pandemic advisor, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Dr. Scott Atlas, right, President Donald Trump’s new pandemic advisor, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Aug. 31 in Tampa, Fla.
(Chris O’Meara / Associated Press)

Is President Trump embracing a “herd immunity” strategy for the COVID-19 pandemic?

Last week, the White House directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise guidelines to discourage people who have been exposed to COVID-19 from getting tested. This policy conflicts with what virtually all health experts recommend, but one that jibes with the view of his new pandemic advisor, Dr. Scott Atlas, who thinks America should adopt the Swedish model of letting the coronavirus run its course and infecting millions of people in order to protect the economy.

If this is the new U.S. strategy, then the president and his team need to be honest with the American people about what it means: risking the lives of millions of people and allowing millions more to become gravely ill and potentially suffer complications for the rest of their lives.

That’s not wild speculation, but a clear-eyed assessment of what could happen if the federal government abandons its admittedly uneven support for closures and stay-at-home orders and follows the dangerous path of Sweden. The leaders of the Scandinavian country chose to forgo lockdowns and relied on individuals to keep themselves safe as the virus spread in the hopes of limiting economic damage while those with little risk of dying got infected and recovered.


We can see why this idea would appeal to the president. It’s a lot easier than undertaking the widespread testing, tracing and supported isolation recommended by public health experts. It also would allow shuttered schools and businesses to reopen immediately and, theoretically, let the stalled economy roar back to life in time to give him a reelection bounce.

The problem is that the Swedish model didn’t work out well. And following it means accepting deaths far above the more than 184,000 Americans who have already died from COVID-19.

In fact, Sweden has suffered a higher mortality rate per capita than many other countries, including the U.S. Its economy fared no better than neighboring countries such as Denmark and Norway that opted for compulsory lockdowns. And for all that, Sweden didn’t even achieve the coveted herd immunity status, which is when enough of the population has acquired protective antibodies from a virus, either through vaccination or infection, to stop the disease from readily spreading. Swedish authorities expected that by May some 40% of its residents would have immunity, but in reality, only about 15% do, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. That’s not even close to what medical experts believe is needed.

Even then, it’s not yet clear that antibodies in those who have recovered from COVID-19 confer long-term protection. Last month, Hong Kong researchers announced the first documented case of a new COVID-19 infection in someone who had recovered from it four months earlier. And people of all ages who survive a bout of COVID-19 may still suffer from serious complications, such as permanent lung damage. There’s so much we don’t know about the new coronavirus that a laissez faire approach is unacceptably reckless.

Nevertheless, Atlas, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, is still pushing this strategy. He says that resources should be focused on protecting vulnerable people — although the younger and healthy people who’ve died from the coronavirus wouldn’t have been considered “vulnerable” — while the rest of us get back to normal, get infected and then recover. And now he apparently has the ear of a president who is primed to listen.

Trump has lent his support to pandemic deniers, recently tweeting a fringe — and wrong — theory that the real death toll for COVID-19 in the U.S. is almost 20 times lower than has been reported. This faulty argument hinges on data posted on the CDC website that says 6% of the COVID-19 deaths reported to the agency cited no other health conditions. But the extrapolation that the rest didn’t die from the infection is wrong. Most people die with multiple complications, and reporting these factors doesn’t mean that the infection wasn’t ultimately to blame.


Undergirding a herd immunity strategy is the morally reprehensible notion that older people and those with chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity (conditions that afflict a significant number of Americans) are expendable because they would die soon anyhow. That’s an idea that has no place in a civilized society.