LA County health officer blasts ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus proposal as immoral, unethical

Los Angeles County’s top health officer on Thursday, Oct. 15, added his voice to those condemning a recently released proposal that essentially calls for a resumption of normal activities for all but those at highest risk of contracting COVID-19, in theory promoting “herd immunity” to the virus.

“There’s been a lot of discussion among our public heath and health sciences communities and they have unambiguously rejected this declaration, and this approach would unnecessarily sacrifice many lives,” county Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration. “There’s no evidence that we in the United States are close to herd immunity, as 85 to 90% of the population is still at risk for becoming infected with COVID-19.”

The declaration, backed by an economic research institution in Massachusetts, essentially calls for those at low risk of becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus to return to pre-pandemic life, while those at high risk — the elderly and those with underlying health conditions — stay home to reduce their risk of infection. The proposal espouses the idea that the virus will spread through the low-risk population most likely to survive the infection, leading to a naturally occurring immune response.

Davis, echoing criticism that has been leveled by an array of health professionals, said the concept basically advocates the sacrifice of lives of people who are susceptible to the illness, because there’s no way to isolate them from infection.

He said the declaration “makes the assumption that people who fall into these (high-risk) groups live in a vacuum, and that they can make a living while at home.”

“I would say for us, about 30% of our population fall into the high-risk category at a minimum,” he said. “In reality, many people who are at great risk are an integral part of our society. They live and interact with people who are younger and healthier. … Even if a healthy person becomes infected when they are outside of their home, working or socializing, they may return to a person who has underlying health conditions and infect them and this can result in serious illness and death.

“So the logic of this declaration operates under the assumption that it’s acceptable to sacrifice lives for the greater population, and this is in many senses unethical and immoral and also avoidable.”

Davis on Thursday also warned again about the potential dangers of twin COVID-19 and flu pandemics, and said the county will be working to ensure vulnerable populations — notably those in skilled nursing facilities and the homeless — are vaccinated against influenza.

He noted that the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are very similar, and the preventative coronavirus measures many people are taking such as proper hygiene, face coverings and social distancing will also help prevent spread of the flu.

“As we’ve seen from countries in the Southern Hemisphere who have already had their flu season, these actions can be effective in preventing the spread of both viruses, and many have seen fairly mild flu seasons,” he said. “We very much hope the same or better here in Los Angeles County and across the state.”

Los Angeles County on Thursday amended its coronavirus public health order laying out guidelines for people to have small private gatherings with members of up to three households. The revision marks a change from previous rules barring gatherings with other households, and it comes at a time the county is seeing a rise in virus transmission rates.

Davis said the new guidance shouldn’t be seen as a sweeping call for people to hold parties with friends and neighbors. But it recognizes that such small gatherings have clearly already been occurring, and the county and state wanted to set rules for such get-togethers, such as requiring face coverings and social distancing and limiting the size of the events.

“If it is going to happen, here are the guidance and the rules for doing that in order to limit the likelihood of transmission amongst the group as well as to the rest of the community,” Davis said. “I hear you in terms of the timing. But we know that this is happening. We see that there’s some evidence of this happening across the country and providing some guidance may be helpful to prevent what we’re hearing about.”

County public health officials on Wednesday reported a recent rise in workplace virus outbreaks. The county’s effective transmission rate — the average number of other people a COVID-19 patient infects with the virus —also rose to 1.05, up from 1.0 two weeks ago.

“As a reminder, if (the rate) is greater than one, then we anticipate that the number of new cases will increase over time,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county health services director.

The county reported another 24 coronavirus-related deaths on Thursday. The countywide death toll due to the virus stood at 6,834 as of Thursday.

The county also announced another 1,233 new confirmed virus infections, bringing its total to  286,183 positive cases since the pandemic began.

The totals did not include updates from the cities of Pasadena and Long Beach, which operate their own health departments. Long Beach reported 30 new cases, for a total of 12,547, but its death toll remained at 254. Pasadena reported four new cases, for a total of 2,664; its death toll remained at 129.

The 723 people hospitalized as of Thursday was up from 720 on Wednesday, 692 on Tuesday, 693 on Monday and 715 on Sunday.

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