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Aiming for herd immunity with COVID-19 would be ‘criminal,’ says one Seattle researcher


There has been some talk at the national level about aiming for herd immunity with this pandemic. Officials in the Trump administration are eager to reopen the economy. 

Herd immunity would involve allowing COVID-19 to spread, which in theory would eventually make people immune.

Ali Mokdad says herd immunity is a false hope. Mokdad is with The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a population health research center with the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. He's looking at hard-hit places, such as Ecuador and Mexico City, to see if herd immunity is happening. He says so far, it isn’t.  

“In Ecuador right now, it's 45 percent of people infected, from zero positive surveys. Ecuador, is still having more cases. Mexico City, 40 percent," Mokdad said. "(COVID-19) is still going on. If we reach herd immunity at 40 percent, that means in the world, globally, 10 million deaths."  

But that hasn't happened yet. There is no herd immunity at 40 percent. 

In an area of the Amazon in Brazil, Mokdad says 60 percent of the population has contracted the virus. And new cases are still being reported. He says if 60 percent of the world's population got COVID-19, more than 15 million people would likely die. 

That's criminal," Mokdad said, “because it means let people die. It's even more criminal because it means let poor people die.” 

But again, herd immunity isn’t happening at 60 percent. Mokdad says we haven’t seen what the lid is yet for herd immunity and to try and find out would cost tens of millions of lives. 

As far as the economy goes, Mokdad says the U.S. could open things up if we followed what other countries are doing.

“China, South Korea, Japan — they haven't shut down. Business is open, but 95 percent of people are wearing masks,” Mokdad said.

The latest estimate from IHME says the total number of deaths in the U.S. is expected to be around 390,000 by the end of January. IHME also says that if 95 percent of people in the U.S. wore masks, nearly 80,000 lives could be saved. 

To hear more about herd immunity, check out our podcast, Transmission.

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Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.