‘Should we let this run its course through the population?’; Romney asks if herd immunity is answer to pandemic

In this file photo, Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop in Utah, March 3, 2018 | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — At a recent U.S. Senate Health Committee hearing, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, presented the argument that the solution for the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic all along was to let everyone get sick and develop a herd immunity, even when he didn’t necessarily agree with that argument. 

Cars line up for the Intermountain Medical drive-thru coronavirus testing site at 376 E. 500 South in St. George, Utah, on May 11, 2020 | File photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“Should we let this run its course through the population and not try to test every person?” Romney asked Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “I’m saying that a bit as a strawman, but I’m interested in your perspective.” 

Collins said the result would not be a disaster when it came to much of the population that is not at high risk of dying from the virus, but it could be deadly for the elderly and others with health conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart conditions. 

“The people who are out there infected, who may not themselves be suffering, are passing this on and becoming a vector to others who are vulnerable with chronic illnesses or in the older age group, and sometimes, young people, too,” Collins told Romney. “I think it is extremely unusual to have a virus like this that is so capable of infecting people without symptoms, but having them then spread it on. We just have not encountered something like that before.”

With much of the state, including Southern Utah, opening up from stay-at-home recommendations and people going back to work, Romney’s question expresses a common inquiry about whether there should have ever been such stay-at-home directives and if the best prescription to overcoming the coronavirus pandemic is for it to work through the population. 

Many readers have sent emails to the St. George News and also commented on the St. George News Facebook page saying that from the beginning, public officials should have kept businesses and offices open. 

A chart showing how “herd” or “community immunity” works. | Image courtesy of Vaccines.gov, St. George News | Click in image to enlarge

According to the Utah Department of Health, only nine of every 100 people who have gotten the virus in the state have even had to be hospitalized. Of those hospitalized, 15% have died.

Those in favor of a herd immunity approach cite the example of “pox parties” before the chickenpox vaccine was developed, where parents would deliberately group their children together with another child with the chickenpox to have them “get it over with.”  

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said the idea of creating a “herd immunity” by letting the virus infect as many people as possible will result in the sacrifice of many more deaths than if people continue to take social distancing measures of staying 6 feet apart and wearing masks in public when they can’t distance themselves.

“We never want to put lives at risk unnecessarily for other people to get back to normal,” Dunn said. “For any infectious disease, we like to see herd immunity. It would take 80% of the population to achieve that. It will take a vaccine to achieve that.”

According to Dunn, at this point, 5% of Utah’s population has been infected with the virus. She said in her estimation, it would take more than a year and the death of 1-4 out of every 100 Utahns to achieve a herd immunity. 

“We are far from herd immunity here,” she said.

Sweden was one of the few nations that didn’t issue any mandatory or recommended guidelines to stay at home or lock down businesses. According to John Hopkins University, the country has among the highest per-capita death tolls of any nation from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, said there isn’t enough data in the medical community to confidently answer whether herd immunity outside of a vaccine is a solution.

Looking at antibodies tests

Another idea looked at as a possible solution is identifying those who have already had the virus and may not even know it.

The Centers of Disease Control estimates as many as 25% of those who get the virus will not experience any symptoms. That was the case for the first two residents of Southern Utah who got the virus – a couple from St. George who acquired it while aboard a cruise ship in Asia.  

Medical worker examines COVID-19 tests, date and location not specified | Photo Courtesy Northwell Health, St. George News

Once a virus runs its course through a person who has recovered, the antibodies that fought the virus remain, as does the RNA of the viruses themselves.

The idea among medical experts is that finding antibodies in a person’s system could determine who’s immune to the virus.

To that end, Intermountain Healthcare – the parent company of Dixie Regional Medical Center, Cedar City Hospital and Garfield Memorial Hospital – has started to do antibodies tests for patients who get the approval of their primary physician. 

However, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem with Intermountain Medical Center in Murray said the antibodies test is not a ticket to immunity. 

“We want the public to temper their enthusiasm for these tests,” Stenehjem said. “All this test means is it makes a determination if you’ve had the virus. In the future, it may determine if you have an immunity, but we cant determine that right now.”

There is also a large risk of false positives with an antibody test. A person thinking they’re “immune” because of testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies could still be susceptible.

“The reason we’re cautious is there are limitations to what test means,” said Dr. Bert Lopansri, Intermountain Healthcare associate medical director for infectious diseases. “If you went to a community with low and no instances and run tests indiscriminately, you’re more likely to be a false positive result.”

“The science of what this test means is not very advanced,” Stenehjem adds. “That positive test does not mean you have longstanding immunity. If the test is positive, this is not a ticket to interact with the community at will.”

What the test may aid in determining is whether there is a true herd immunity taking place in those who have had the virus. 

“We’ll see this surge again in the fall and winter, and we will need to know if those who test positive for the antibodies get it again,” Stenehjem said.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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