Waiting for Herd Immunity Won’t Save Us

Reportedly, Scott Atlas—a top White House medical advisor with no background in epidemiology or infectious diseases—has been pushing President Trump to adopt a herd immunity strategy as a response to the coronavirus. Though Atlas publicly denied the report, President Trump has previously floated the idea of using herd immunity as a strategy to combat the pandemic. 

What is Herd Immunity?

Herd immunity, also known as community immunity, occurs when a large enough proportion of a population becomes immune to a virus. Individuals achieve immunity either by becoming infected and developing antibodies to a disease naturally, or by receiving a vaccine.

Waiting for Herd Immunity Won’t Save Us
Herd immunity is a form of indirect protection from disease that occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, reducing the likelihood of infection for individuals who lack immunity. (Wikimedia Commons)

Once enough people are immunized to a disease, it’s more difficult for the virus to travel between people because there are less potential hosts for the virus to infect. Eventually, transmission becomes rare, and in some cases herd immunity can essentially wipe out a disease—for example, polio is no longer an issue in the U.S. due to widespread vaccination

Because of age, underlying health conditions or other factors, some people cannot safely receive a vaccine. That’s why achieving herd immunity is so important—it helps decrease the likelihood someone who is unable to get immunized will become infected. 

So far, there has been conflicting research on the percent of the population who need to be immunized to COVID-19—whether through vaccination or previous infections—before herd immunity is achieved. However, most estimates show the number is likely between 50 percent to 80 percent.

Currently, the roughly six million confirmed cases in the U.S. represent less than 1 percent of our population.

Additionally, it remains unclear how long previously infected individuals retain antibodies against the coronavirus, thereby making herd immunity a fleeting target. 

No matter what, one thing is for sure: Waiting for the population to naturally achieve herd immunity will result in more infections and the loss of countless more lives. 

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According to an analysis by The Washington Post, at the 65 percent threshold and an assumed 1 percent fatality rate, achieving herd immunity naturally would lead to an estimated 2 million deaths in the U.S. Even their more conservative calculations estimated 656,000 lives lost. That’s why health officials caution that herd immunity is not a response strategy, but rather a goal to be achieved through safe and effective vaccines.

What’s more, we know this pandemic is affecting communities of color disproportionately. Achieving herd immunity naturally will exacerbate the toll the virus is already taking on vulnerable populations. 

Waiting for Herd Immunity Won’t Save Us
Achieving herd immunity naturally would lead to an estimated 2 million deaths in the U.S. (ILO.org)

The Bottom Line

Clearly, the virus isn’t going to “just disappear” any time soon as the president suggests.

A national strategy of waiting for herd immunity without a vaccine will result in an untold number of people becoming infected, many more hospitalizations and a horrific number of preventable deaths.  

To keep up with our latest coverage of the pandemic and other health-related news, check out Ms.’s Weekly Pulse column, released every Friday.



Giselle Hengst recently graduated from Vanderbilt University with degrees in Women's & Gender Studies and Medicine, Health, & Society. She is currently an editorial and social media intern at Ms. magazine.