THE UNITED STATES and Europe are headed into an autumn surge of coronavirus infections that portends a winter of trouble. New cases in the United States are trending upward in 41 states and declining in none. So it may be attractive to find a new plan for handling the pandemic that offers a relatively sunny path. Don’t be fooled.
The new plan, known as the Great Barrington Declaration, was unveiled Oct. 4 at the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank in that western Massachusetts town. The authors call for protecting the “vulnerable,” but, for most others — especially the young — recommend “resume life as normal.” Open schools, universities, restaurants and other businesses; hold arts, sports and cultural activities; and follow “simple hygiene measures.” The spreading infection will eventually reach “herd immunity,” a tipping point when enough people gain natural immunity that the virus will not circulate.
This is a terribly misguided and dangerous notion. It would lead to a new wave of illness and deaths. The authors, Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University Medical School, propose to “allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk.” How many people will die or suffer debilitating sickness along this path toward “herd immunity”? They don’t say. But the experience of the past nine months provides incontrovertible evidence that when people congregate in bars and restaurants, at weddings, on cruise ships, in the White House or in summer camp, the virus transmits and deaths follow. President Trump’s disastrous encouragement to Sun Belt states to open in May triggered a catastrophic virus surge in the United States. Today, the U.S. death toll is more than 217,000. How many more waves, how many more overwhelmed hospitals — like those in Wisconsin — would the authors wish us to endure before reaching natural “herd immunity”? They don’t say.
Allowing the virus to run riot in pursuit of this chimera means deliberately putting down the tools that now exist to save lives in the interim period before an effective vaccine or drug therapy arrives. Those tools include selective restrictions on how people can congregate, as well as social distancing and other measures. The authors rightly point to the enormous cost of lockdowns, especially in education and the economy. Public fatigue also makes some restrictions less useful or reliable. But given the surging infections, every measure that works must be considered. The authors do not even mention face masks, one of the most effective.
The White House says the Great Barrington Declaration “aligns very strongly” with Mr. Trump’s policy. At least in spirit, it certainly matches his reckless surrender to the virus, neglecting to mount a vigorous federal response, and instead turning it over to besieged states and localities. Beware all those who say the virus will vanish if we simply relax and stop worrying about it.