The CDC vs. Mom and … That Illusive Herd Immunity


Well, by now you know to cough into your elbow, wash your hands, stay at a distance from infected people, and wear, or don’t wear a mask, … the things our mothers told us when there was flu epidemic going around your elementary school. The whole mask thing is perhaps part charade, part virtue signaling, part courtesy, and part efficacious, all in equal parts. Wear one, don’t wear one, do wear one, wear one all the time, wear one in restaurants except when eating or drinking, but maybe you should, and … when wearing one, don’t contract other diseases like E. coli from wearing a mask and rebreathing your own exhaust. And whatever you do, stand 6 feet apart, or 9.5 feet, or… half a mile away. Experts, according to the British Medical Journal, cannot seem to decide.

For the sake of science and Dear Leader Fauci, I will skip over the whole mask and 6 feet social distancing thing, though I did enjoy reading the CDC study which concluded that even with a mask and standing 6 feet away, one should avoid being around any particular person for more than 17 minutes at a time – or cumulative during a day (though do they define a day as when the sun is up, between midnight on one day and midnight on the next day, or a 24-hour window, … ?). And for the sake of clarity, that is “17” minutes, and not 18. Fortunately, Apple has updated its Apple Watch software in record time to include an automatic 17-minute timer. After several weeks of diddling and another 28 thousand COVID-related deaths (because each death must be prevented), the Apple software was approved by the expeditious FDA and is now being rushed to hospitals so medical staff will receive it first. Oooops. That 17-minute rule was later modified to 15 minutes – cumulative time per day. Apple will have to modify their software and get FDA approval all over again. In the meantime, keep your distance, mark down the time you are with others, and keep a running tally. Tick, tick, tick. Gotta go.

Anyway, let’s get serious: COVID. It’s a killer, it spreads on the ethereal breeze (or wheeze) of others wafted along by the dulcimer wings of zephyrs or HVAC systems. My mother always told me to speak softly and to take a bath, and now I know why. You don’t want your exhales and contrails to be polluting the nasal passages of those around you. Things could be attached to them. Likewise for your breath. So don’t forget to brush your teeth (or only brush the ones you want to keep). Mom seemed to understand that good manners and body sanitation are important – especially for teenage boys.

OK, enough of this common sense, Mom-knows-best stuff. The question that we all must ask is this: How many Americans have actually been infected with COVID-19? Just like the annual flu, no one knows. But for the sake of “science”, let’s take a look at the science. A study organized by two doctors (one medical, the other a Ph.D. in Nephrology) at Stanford University and published in Lancet on October 24, indicates that maybe 30 million Americans were infected with Covid by the end of July. This was a very good study using thousands of samples taken from 1,300 US dialysis centers. The sample data was then adjusted to make it more representative of the US population at large (sex, age, race, ethnicity). Here is the conclusion:

Seroprevalence of SARS-CoV-2 was 8.0% (95% CI 7.7–8.4) in the sample, 8.3% (8.0–8.6) when standardised to the US dialysis population, and 9.3% (8·8–9·9) when standardised to the US adult population. When standardised to the US dialysis population, seroprevalence ranged from 3·5% (3.1–3.9) in the west to 27.2% (25.9–28.5) in the northeast.

So what does this mean? “9.3%” of the adjusted sample showed seroprevalence or Covid antibodies with a range of 8.8 to 9.9 percent at the 95% confidence interval (95% confidence is very good).

Now if one takes the results of the study and pairs it with the cumulative 3 million confirmed cases of COVID in the US in July, then we can see that there is a ratio of around 10:1 between infections and confirmed cases (9.3% times 330 million people equals ~30 million people divided by around 3 million cumulative confirmed cases). Studies like these are constantly ‘peer-reviewed’ and this one came in for some mild criticism, but it is considered to be sound. The 10 to 1 ratio, or a 9 to 1 ratio, take your pick, has also been confirmed by the CDC and elsewhere by other studies.

Today the US has around 17 million confirmed cases of COVID. Testing is now better and more prevalent than in July. If we were to just randomly reduce the ratio multiplier from 10 infections per confirmed case to say 7 because people are undergoing more and better testing, then we might be looking at somewhere between ~100 million and quite possibly as many as 170 million people who have contracted COVID in the US (7 times 17 million confirmed cases or 10 times 17 million cases). Again, we don’t know.

If this is true, then the US is about half to two-thirds of the way toward the edge of herd immunity, which various scientists claim is achieved when a population has undergone an infection rate of 66-80%. The exact level of herd immunity is uncertain due to each disease’s unique characteristics and contagiousness. Anyway, when and if America gets to herd immunity, it will be helpful. Mom might even give us a gold star and put it on the refrigerator.

Despite all the promise of a vaccine, an infectious disease does not go away. And until that vaccine is available, COVID will keep doing what it does: it will act like a pandemic. If the number of infected Americans reaches 200 million, which may happen in less than 3 weeks as 17 million confirmed cases becomes 20 million confirmed cases (indicating the total infections may be as high as 200 million in the US), it is possible COVID will be in the process of peaking before most of us get access to a vaccine. So a natural national immunity may happen simply on its own; Governor Cuomo or Newsom be damned.

COVID will never disappear, however, it will gradually find fewer bodies to infect, with or without a vaccine. Let’s hope for the best and in the meantime keep asking ourselves, “What would Mom tell us to do?” Most likely she would say, “Stay frosty.” Or perhaps that was my drill sergeant? I often confuse the two. Both spent a lot of time telling me about how to keep my things in order, exercise good hygiene, and avoid trouble. Funny that.

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  1. Stad Coolidge

    James Madison: Covid. It’s a killer.

    Tell that to the 98% of people who lived . . .

    • #1
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    Stad (View Comment):

    James Madison: Covid. It’s a killer.

    Tell that to the 98% of people who lived . . .

    It’s more effective to preach to the living than to the dead. 

    • #2
  3. James Madison Member
    James Madison

    And just like that, the third wave of the epidemic which struck the central US is beginning to recede. Who’d a thunk?

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    James Madison (View Comment):

    And just like that, the third wave of the epidemic which struck the central US is beginning to recede. Who’d a thunk?

    Too hard to read that chart.The main numbers I follow are deaths/million population and case fatality rates. Sometimes I look at cases/million population, too.

    But yes, we’ve had a couple of days of downward trend of deaths per capita. But within living memory (i.e. within the last month) we’ve had bigger drops than that which were followed by increases to new heights. 

    I would hope that the combination of vaccinations plus immunity from people who’ve already had it would start to slow the spread of the virus sometime, if not already.




    • #4
  5. cdor Member

    Stad (View Comment):

    James Madison: Covid. It’s a killer.

    Tell that to the 98% of people who lived . . .

    Unless Mr. Madison speaks to the dead, I believe he has told it to those 98% still alive. Ha! But wait. 55 people have died from the vaccine, maybe more. But don’t worry, it’s only the old and sick who are dying. Ouch! I thought it was the old and sick who needed the vaccine the most. Oy veh.

    • #5
  6. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby

    Stad (View Comment):

    James Madison: Covid. It’s a killer.

    Tell that to the 98% of people who lived . . .

    Well, I’d agree that the disease kills, so it’s a “killer.”

    But, is it “deadly,” the word some of my friends use when they are trying to gin up fear? Lots of diseases kill people, but we don’t refer to them as “deadly” unless the disease kills a significant portion of the people the disease affects. To me, a disease that kills less than 2% of the people it infects is not “deadly.”

    I fear these friends of mine who refer to Covid as “deadly” will use every death (and there will be deaths going forward, herd immunity, or vaccine, or not) to argue for continuing tight restrictions on life and on interpersonal contact. But, those restrictions are taking an enormous toll on the well-being of a lot of people.

    How do we compare how “deadly” a disease is when the tradeoff is misery for a large number of people? Is imposing misery on 30 – 40 % of the population a reasonable tradeoff to minimize transmission of a disease that kills less than 1 % of the population (assuming the measures we have taken actually reduce the transmission of the disease)? When does “herd immunity” for mental illness and despair kick in?

    • #6
  7. MiMac Thatcher

    The mutated version which is claimed to spread 50-70% more than the original will make the required “herd immunity” level higher. 

    • #7
  8. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby

    MiMac (View Comment):

    The mutated version which is claimed to spread 50-70% more than the original will make the required “herd immunity” level higher.

    I have generally ignored any reference to a supposedly more contagious mutation as probably dishonest or malicious information intended to justify further totalitarian rule. My ignorance may be scientifically wrong, but it is what happens when “scientists” repeatedly politicize science. As has been discussed in other threads, one of the consequences of politicizing science is that the public stops paying attention, even to valid information. I reject any efforts to justify a higher requirement for “herd immunity” based on a supposedly more contagious mutation. 


    • #8
  9. Bob W Member
    Bob W

    Does natural immunity, caused by a prior infection, prevent you from contracting and spreading the virus, or merely prevent you from getting sick? I don’t know the answer, but if it doesn’t prevent spreading the virus, then it will not result in herd immunity. That happens when a certain critical mass of people become unable to transmit the virus, not merely become protected against being sickened by it.

    Same with the vaccine. They don’t yet know whether it confers sterilizing immunity, which prevents you from being able to contract and spread the virus. Most vaccines do not confer sterilizing immunity, including the flu vaccine. If the Covid vaccine is like most others, it too will not help us get to herd immunity. And when most people have been vaccinated and eventually let their guard down, the virus will explode through the population. The public health consequence of that effect on a population that is mostly vaccinated is unclear.

    That is, unless I have no idea what I’m talking about… Which is possible because I never ever hear public health officials discuss this issue. They talk about herd immunity as if it’s a forgone conclusion, while at the same time acknowledging that it’s unknown whether the vaccine confers sterilizing immunity. This doesn’t seem to compute. 


    • #9
  10. Bob W Member
    Bob W

    Stad (View Comment):

    James Madison: Covid. It’s a killer.

    Tell that to the 98% of people who lived . . .

    Here’s something that caught my attention, and which makes me less optimistic about what could happen to the average person who gets the virus.

    This surgeon is saying that almost everyone she has seen who has contracted the virus (every patient who had symptoms and 70-80% of those who didn’t) have very severe looking chest X-rays.

    I guess this is anecdotal but this doctor has seen a lot of patients. Think about the implications of say half the US population having permanent lung damage, and the public health crisis that portends.

    • #10
  11. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos

    Herd immunity is not just a function of infection numbers. See Nic Lewis’ detailed treatment here.

    Pre-existing exposure to COVID variants makes a difference in infection, severity and spread. 

    Emerging irony is that to the extent that lockdowns, distancing and masks made a difference, they merely delayed spread of the lesser infectious variant and made spread of the new, more contagious variant more likely with a wider selection of not yet infected targets.

    Never has there ever been a time when so many politicians and “experts” shared a vested interest in utter BS about the rationale for vastly destructive policies. Biden will usher in a banner year for lying at many levels.


    • #11