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Herd Immunity Herp Derp

The pandemic’s wrongest theory.
August 19, 2021
Herd Immunity Herp Derp
STURGIS, SOUTH DAKOTA - AUGUST 08: Motorcycle enthusiasts pose for a group photo during the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 8, 2021 in Sturgis, South Dakota. Over a quarter of a million people are estimated to have attended. The 2020 Sturgis rally was a COVID superspreader event. (Photo by Scott Olson / Getty)

A lot of people, including many experts, made blunders when assessing the best ways to combat the novel coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan in late 2019. For a while people were sanitizing their grocery bags. Mask guidance was all over the map. To this day people of good faith have disagreements on the best mitigation strategies.

But throughout it all there has been one strategy that was the wrongest. Every piece of available evidence has demonstrated just how wrong it was, how deadly it would have been to fully embrace, and yet it persists among the anti-elite plandemic crowd: natural herd immunity.

“Herd” became the branché pandemic approach for the contrarian set early on when it was pioneered by the hardy Swedes. The thinking goes like this: The disease should be allowed to spread rapidly so that the herd immunity threshold can be reached quickly—meaning that a high enough proportion of the population, assumed to be somewhere between 60 and 70 percent, has naturally contracted COVID to slow transmission to the uninfected. It is a let-the-disease-burn-through-your-population strategy. By summer 2020 it was clear that this approach had failed in Sweden; today that country has suffered almost ten times the deaths per capita as its Scandinavian neighbors, Norway and Finland. So eventually, in fits and starts, the Swedish government moved on to the mitigation strategies more commonly practiced elsewhere in Europe: distance learning, strict limits on gatherings, masks. Yet stateside the COVID truther Swedophiles could never quite let it go.

Before we get to the Hall of Shame I want to lay out in stark terms how deadly the herd approach would have been when you consider the data.

Over 37 million people in the United States have contracted COVID so far, according to the official count. Almost 170 million people have been fully vaccinated. While there’s surely plenty of overlap in those last two categories (that is, people who had COVID and were then vaccinated, and people who were vaccinated and then had a breakthrough case), we can also assume that there are additional Americans who are both unvaccinated and contracted COVID without ever receiving a positive test. So we can ballpark that somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million Americans have either vaccine immunity or some level of “natural immunity” from having contracted the virus. That’s roughly 60 percent of the country.

And still, even with that level of immunity nationally, there are now as many new cases each day as there were in early February, before widespread vaccination began. The daily death toll (averaged over the last week) is now over 800. (The total U.S. death toll has now been pushed above 620,000, a figure, needless to say, that far exceeds the previous administration’s projections.) And no “herd” in sight.

Given the uncertain variables of COVID and the new strains, some researchers have concluded that herd immunity, even with vaccines, may not even be a feasible goal.

But let’s play along with the supporters of herd immunity for a moment. If our current levels of vaccination and natural infection aren’t sufficient to provide herd immunity, as they clearly aren’t, what’s the right threshold for herd immunity—70 percent? 75 percent? 80 percent? In 2020, the natural herd immunity crowd considered it important to reach that threshold without vaccines, which they couldn’t say with confidence were coming. So to reach national herd immunity without vaccination, tens of millions more Americans would have had to get COVID, which would presumably mean hundreds of thousands of more deaths. Or would it take more? A million dead Americans? Two million?

It’s been a long year and it’s hard to keep track of just all the wrongness in the world, so let’s just step back and take a look at some of the worst offenders.

Here’s a chart put together by our friends at Bad COVID-19 Takes that shows how wrong the pandemic’s wrongest man, Alex Berenson, was on herd:

Look at his smarmy little head way down there on the chart. Alex was calling his herd immunity shot when the death toll from the pandemic had barely even gotten going! He was like the toddler at the beginning of a long road trip, asking if you are there yet before you’ve even pulled on the highway.

A month after Berenson, former President Trump was on the case, calling for a “herd mentality,” which was pushed by Trump’s quack adviser Dr. Scott Atlas. Atlas was telling White House colleagues that “we want them infected” and, of course, advocating the most sociopathic stance imaginable lifted him in the then-president’s esteem. This past December, following Trump’s humiliating defeat, the lame duck was still talking about how “terrific” it was that so many people had contracted COVID since it meant we were on track to reach herd.

The late Rush Limbaugh was also an advocate for herd immunity. In fact, he thought it had already been achieved in May 2020. Half a million deaths later, that seems to have been a miscalculation. But after Rush went down to his eternal rest, the dittoheads did not have their herd priors challenged. His time slot was filled by amateur epidemiologist Clay Travis, who had previously gained success as a blogger who specialized in boobs and sports talk. Travis, who once predicted that there would be only a “few hundred” deaths from COVID—making him a gentleman’s 100,000-200,000 percent off from the current total—was one of America’s leading advocates for herd immunity. Only Berenson’s MJ-in-’96 level of dominance protected Travis from the wrongest-man title.

In April 2020, Travis was on the Sweden bandwagon and using his newfound Wikipedia University bachelor’s degree in public health determined that the Swedes were well on their way to herd. By July, he projected that New York City and other parts of the United States were joining them and were either “at” or “moving close to” herd immunity themselves. In August he expertly observed that the rapid decline of the virus “does make you wonder if herd immunity hit” in the American South. (Spoiler: It had not.) By February 2021, Dr. Travis had finally seen enough to declare, “We’ve hit herd immunity and COVID will be over by the end of April.”

As the great Donald Trump once said, eventually he will be right.

The herd immunity hipsters over at the Federalist were the first to the game with their notorious March 2020 article calling for “chickenpox parties” for COVID. But the blowback from that and the increasing death toll didn’t slow their roll.

In April 2020, an anonymous “academic physician and researcher” argued in the Federalist against physical distancing guidelines, making the case for rushing toward herd instead. The author at least had the honesty to concede that “if we had a vaccine, everything would be different.” That’s true: the promise of vaccines undermines entirely the logic of the natural herd immunity argument.

Which is what’s so striking about Federalist editor Joy Pullman’s July 2020 article. “Herd immunity is exactly what the spike in cases indicates is developing, and we need it to continue,” she wrote. Some 400,000+ deaths later, safe to say she sure got her wish on the second part. But Pullman, like the anonymous doctor, bases her argument on the supposed unavailability of a vaccine “anywhere in our near future, if at all”—even though Donald Trump had already said a vaccine would likely be ready by the end of the year.

By New Year’s Eve The Federalist gang was certain that the glorious conclusion of their national chickenpox experiment was nigh, and republished a RealClear article from a distinguished scientist, Robert M. Kaplan, stating that some states were at long last on the cusp of herd immunity.

Alas it was not to be.

But hope springs eternal.

For the contrarians, the elusive herd is always right there, just across the horizon. There is no reason to listen to those dastardly, idiot experts. No reason to mask or distance or get jabbed if it impinges on your freedom.

Because herd is so close (yet so far away).

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.