When Herd Immunity Meets Thinning the Herd

What it feels like to know you’re among the designated “collateral damage” in the reckless rush for herd immunity

I live in a Pennsylvania city that was at one point a COVID hotspot. For a while, we seemed to have brought the numbers down, due in part to statewide comprehensive management efforts including shutdowns, social distancing, and other steps. However, like many other parts of the country, we began seeing drastic and alarming spikes in COVID numbers around Thanksgiving and hospital capacity — and availability of ICU beds in particular — has been a concern of doctors and health officials ever since.

Hospitals in other states like Utah and Oklahoma recently reached a point where they were at or near full capacity to treat seriously ill COVID patients. Some ran out of ICU beds or were scrambling to get enough ventilators. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, paramedics were instructed not to transport patients who had slim chance of survival. Doctors and hospital leaders have warned that they may reach the point where they have to make an impossible choice — deciding who gets life-saving equipment and who doesn’t — because they may not have enough to go around.

I can’t help but wonder: if ventilators started getting scarce on a widespread basis, would the federal government implement a ranking policy similar to the immigration policy introduced by the Trump administration in 2019, where applicants were ranked in part based on financial assets and likelihood to need safety net programs? If so — as someone who grew up in severe poverty and is still working class — I am certain that I and many of my family members wouldn’t make the cut.

Which prompts me to contemplate the idea of herd immunity and which of us would be considered essential members of the herd, worthy of saving.

“Herd immunity” is a term we’ve heard thrown around a lot throughout the pandemic, mostly by those who strongly opposed shutdowns, mask-wearing, and any other precautionary steps they consider an inconvenience or annoyance. They assert that we need to keep living our normal lives and eventually we will achieve this state of herd immunity where COVID-19 is no longer such a significant threat.

Some of Donald Trump’s favored advisors like Dr. Scott Atlas — who resigned last month, reportedly because his position had a limited term that was set to expire — had been pushing a “herd immunity” approach, despite warnings from experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci that this strategy is reckless and is a futile effort without a widely available vaccine. Just this week, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist warned that we are unlikely to achieve herd immunity this year.

Pursuing the herd immunity tactic through a non-vaccine route would require a huge number of Americans to become seriously sick or die. Numerous experts, including Dr. Fauci, have said trying to build up widespread immunity simply through natural exposure would come at too great of a human cost.

But there are some, like Trump and his advisors, who seem to find that cost acceptable. Which begs the question: which Americans would they be okay with sacrificing? I have a pretty good guess. When businesses open back up after a shutdown, it is generally not the CEOs who are risking exposure. The frontline workers are the ones interacting with the public or working in cramped, enclosed spaces. They are the ones risking infection, while the executives can keep a safe distance from their secure estates and remote offices. It’s a win-win: the corporate bigwigs can reap the profits of continuing normal business operations and prevent workers from collecting unemployment, without personally taking any risks themselves.

Some lawmakers have made no secret about their willingness to sacrifice some of their own constituents. Early in the pandemic, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman happily offered up her city’s workforce as what she called a “control group” to be used as guinea pigs for a reopening — although she didn’t volunteer to be among them for this experiment. Meanwhile, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick claimed elderly Americans would be willing to die from COVID if it would speed up the economic recovery.

Trump has been evasive on the issue of herd immunity — or at least the term itself. At some points, he has tried to distance himself from that provocative phrase, perhaps out of political motivations. But even if he doesn’t want to specifically use that wording, his tactics and policies appear driven by the same mindset of weeding out the elderly, weak, and others he seems to view as disposable. And many state and local Republican leaders seem to following that lead.

Here in PA, our Democratic governor announced tougher restrictions in mid-December, including a ban on indoor dining. Our Republican state representative and our former Congressman (also Republican) made a point of encouraging people on social to continue going out to eat despite the restrictions and saying we would never develop immunity if we stayed home. They also keep stressing the “98 percent survival rate” which glosses over the fact that this means (at least) two percent will die and many others will have lifelong health issues.

Meanwhile in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis — who has resisted any sort of restrictive or precautionary measures throughout the pandemic — stressed in the fall that there would be no more shutdowns or mask mandates in the state no matter how bad the COVID numbers get.

The vaccine rollout has now started, but is going slowly and it will be at least several months before vaccines are widely available to general public. If the current administration and some government leaders insist on sticking with policies and stances that seem driven by a dangerous quest for herd immunity without a widespread vaccination program, which Americans have they deemed tolerable collateral damage? Which segments of our country are they okay with volunteering as acceptable losses?

Like others who care about vulnerable populations, I had serious concerns four years ago about what Donald Trump’s election would mean for essential programs and services many Americans rely upon for survival. After Trump and his GOP cohorts celebrated one of their first “victories” — a vote that took them one step closer to ripping health insurance away from millions of Americans. I recall commenting on social media that some of our current leaders saw this as a good way to “thin the herd.”

It was a refrain I have repeated many times since then, with each step that gradually chipped away at the pillars of the safety net. Initially, I got pushback from some who felt that view was too harsh or cynical. Those who objected to my stance would assure me, “Nobody actually wants to kill poor and sick people.”

It’s a lot harder to make that case now. Not after we’ve seen clear evidence that Trump’s actions have cost the lives of many Americans. To make things worse, the Trump administration is actively trying to kill the Affordable Care Act at the exact time when so many Americans desperately need life-saving medical care.

Trump embraces the concept of herd immunity (even if not necessarily using the term itself) because it allows him to maintain the illusion that life and everyday American routine is carrying on as usual, and that in turn tends to be good for the stock market — which seems to be his main benchmark for judging how Americans are doing financially, even though it gives little indication of how tough things are for the poor and working-class.

COVID-19 has hit vulnerable and disadvantaged populations especially hard, including the poor, elderly, disabled, people of color, and immigrants. For those of us who fall into one or more of those categories — or worry about loved ones who do — it’s disturbing to realize you are a segment of the population that some in our leadership would be just fine with culling from the herd.

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Writer whose recent work includes essays and op-eds on poverty and social issues, but I also love fun stuff like the 80s, bargain-hunting, and bad reality TV.

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