The White House has redoubled its efforts to reopen the economy by now openly adopting a herd immunity strategy at the urging of some health experts.
Two senior advisers said Newsweek and other media on Monday that the Trump administration supports the Barrington Grand Declaration, a controversial document that opposes the blockade and calls for the opening of schools, businesses and other organizations, while protecting people considered vulnerable to the virus due to age or other risk factors.
“I think Americans should be cautiously optimistic about what’s going on here,” said one official.
Officials were not authorized to speak in a protocol on the issue, but both defended the decision to move to a large-scale resumption, although at least 5,900 people in the United States died last week with COVID-19.
The coronavirus has killed more than 214,000 people in the United States since the pandemic began earlier this year.
Experts say approaching “herd immunity” – essentially allowing more people to contract COVID-19 in the hope that they will recover quickly and build mass immunity – is likely to lead to many more deaths and illnesses.
According to the latest estimates from the Institute for Health Indicators and Estimates, the death toll in the United States is set to reach 392,460 by January 31, with current protections. If the restrictions are eased, the IHME estimates that 497,034 Americans will have died by that date, more than 100,000 deaths.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gebreesus told reporters during a virtual press briefing on Monday that such an approach would be “unethical”.
“Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from the virus, not by exposing them to it,” he said.
President Donald Trump has mentioned the idea in the past, mistakenly calling it the “herd mentality,” and the idea was pushed by some of the president’s favorite conservatives, including Laura Ingraham of Fox News.
The great Barrington document, released last week, was created by Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, Jay Batacharya of Stanford University and Martin Culdorf of Harvard University. Thousands of additional scientists have signed the open petition, despite media reports of some fake names on the list.
“As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists, we have serious concerns about the detrimental effects on physical and mental health of the prevailing COVID-19 policies and recommend an approach we call focused protection,” the open letter said. “Current blocking policies have devastating consequences for short-term and long-term public health.”
Trump, who said he believed the COVID-19 vaccine would be developed by the end of the year, revealed in the early morning hours of Oct. 2 that he had tested positive for COVID-19. He was briefly hospitalized, but has since been released by a White House doctor for community service. He is scheduled to hold a rally in Florida on Monday, followed by rallies in Pennsylvania on Tuesday and Iowa on Wednesday.
The White House spokesman described the Barrington Grand Declaration as an emphasis on “aggressive protection of the vulnerable, opening of all schools, opening of business in the community and ending protracted blockades.”
“We learned a lot about the virus – it’s not April,” the official said, defending the pressure to fully restore business and social activity. “It’s very clear who is at high risk and who is not at high risk.”
One employee noted that thousands of students returned to campuses this fall, resulting in several hundred positive cases, but few hospitalizations and no known deaths.
The official blamed the large number of cases at colleges that required testing, even among students who had no symptoms of COVID-19.
“The goal is to make sure we can do everything we can to protect high-risk people, while understanding that healthy people can return to work,” the official argued.
The official said the White House would continue to support other public mitigation efforts, including social distancing, aggressive hand washing, and cleaning and wearing masks where appropriate.
“The virus is dangerous, but it is dangerous for a certain subgroup of the population,” the official added.