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Listen to the scientists. Listen to the experts. Those are encouragements we give regularly here in these editorial pages. So when a group of infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists release a declaration about the damaging impacts of policies implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we take notice.
The eight-paragraph Great Barrington Declaration is named for the Massachusetts town home to the American Institute for Economic Research, a free-market think tank that convened the declaration authors. Those primary authors are a Harvard professor of medicine, an Oxford professor of epidemiology, and a Stanford University Medical School professor. Their credentials are impressive, and they’re right to be concerned about the mental health toll, missed medical care, lower childhood vaccination rates and worsening cardiovascular health outcomes that have accompanied public health policies implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19.
But while they have correctly diagnosed some of the troubling symptoms of the COVID response, the prescription they offer is a false choice with dangerous implications.
The declaration signatories would have people who are at a lower risk from the virus return to normal everyday life with the express goal of more people getting the virus and developing natural immunity to it. This would be in pursuit of reaching herd immunity , a point where a sufficient amount of the population is immune to a disease, typically achieved with the help of vaccines.
The pushback from other scientists and public health experts has been significant. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist from Columbia Public Health, referenced in an interview with PBS this week findings that, even in areas hit hard by COVID-19, about 20 percent of people have antibodies and would thus seem to have immunity.
“That’s nowhere near the threshold that we would need to achieve herd immunity. So, you would have to have millions more people get infected. That would mean millions more people could die,” Rasmussen said. “I think that that is an unacceptable price to pay for the benefits of herd immunity.”
The desire to return to normalcy is a good one, and one so many of us obviously share, but the Great Barrington Declaration signatories would seem to have people believe that the only two choices are lockdowns or immediate rejection of most COVID precautions, and that just isn’t the case. As Maine has proven, it’s possible to increasingly scale back restrictions without abandoning proven public health measures.
“Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold,” reads the declaration. “Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.”
That scenario of open schools and businesses should be the goal across America. In many ways, it also sounds a lot like Maine right now.
Most Maine schools are using some type of hybrid model that includes in-person learning. Many fall sports are being played, with notable exceptions like high school football and volleyball. Restaurants and other businesses are open and increasingly operating under less restrictions. Some state limits on gathering size have been relaxed, while some requirements like mask wearing have been tightened.
Now in its fourth phase of reopening, Maine has increasingly moved toward the more open scenarios envisioned in the Great Barrington Declaration, and done so without asking young people to go out of their way to get the virus and without giving up on reasonable measures like mask wearing and social distancing. Our experience underscores a fundamental flaw in the declaration: people and their governments do not have to choose between shutting everything down or turning their backs on slowing the spread of this potentially deadly virus.
“Combatting the pandemic with lockdowns or full reopening is not a binary, either/or choice,” a collection of dozens of public health groups and scientists wrote in an open letter condemning the declaration’s strategy. “We need to embrace common sense public health practices that allow for a safe reopening of the economy and a return to in-person work and learning while also using proven strategies to reduce the spread of the virus.”
Herd immunity is the ultimate goal, but it matters how we get there. Aggressively barrelling toward it without a vaccine or more widely accessible, proven therapeutics could cost many more lives, while essentially throwing in the towel on the many prudent steps that Mainers have taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 so far. In that sense, the Great Barrington model is more of a resignation than a declaration.