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Herd immunity not a reasonable COVID cure, short of yet-to-be developed vaccine

A large group of people de-board the westbound California Zephyr train at the Amtrak station in downtown Glenwood.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The notion of achieving natural herd immunity to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus that’s sometimes touted by skeptics of social distancing and face masks is not a realistic one, say local public health experts.

Among the threads upon threads of social media comments related to the global COVID-19 pandemic are ones arguing that the populace should be able to move about normally — thus allowing the contagious and potentially fatal disease to spread to the point that the vast majority of the population becomes immune.

In human populations, that’s typically achieved artificially through the use of a vaccination — the goal being to inoculate a certain majority percentage of people until the entire community (“the herd”) is protected.

Short of a vaccination for COVID-19, which is not yet available and isn’t likely to be until sometime next year, that herd immunity would have to occur naturally.

“In many diseases, we talk about herd immunity in public health,” Garfield County Public Health Specialist Carrie Godes said in a recent response to the question.

“However, with COVID we just don’t know enough about the illness to know what it means for the community,” she said. “More of this will come with time, but for now we still need everyone to continue to take the basic steps that we are asking, as they are the only tools that we have at this present time.”

That means, Garfield County residents and visitors alike should continue to do their part to slow the spread by:

  • Wearing a mask or cloth face-covering in public
  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Walking, riding or playing 6 feet apart
  • Getting tested within 1-2 days of symptom (fever, dry cough, difficulty breathing) onset
  • Staying home if you are ill

To truly achieve herd immunity in Garfield County, that would mean between 70-90% of the population would have to contract the new coronavirus that can cause COVID-19.

“For a community like Garfield County, that would be over 40,000 people, not even taking into account visitors from other areas,” Godes said.

And, that’s on the low end of the percentage range.

Expanding that to all of Colorado, 4 million of the state’s 5.8 million people would have to contract the virus. For the entire United States, that number would be 230 million people, and globally it would mean 5.3 billion people contracting the virus to achieve herd immunity.

To date, Garfield County has confirmed 290 cases of COVID-19, either through direct lab-positive results or based on presumed cases through contact tracing.

The number of overall infected, however, is likely higher.

Mason Hohstadt, also a public health specialist with Garfield County, said the county uses a replication factor of 1 — meaning that, for every positive case, there’s likely one additional undetected case, he said.

“So, of the 90 new recent onset cases we’ve seen, we can realistically say we have 180 active cases in the county,” he said.

As any of those 180 people moves about without practicing the public health safety protocols, the disease can easily spread — including within more vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and people who have existing health problems and compromised immune systems.

The recent uptick in new active cases places Garfield County in the red/high category for virus prevalence, meaning it will not be allowed to move into Colorado’s next phase for allowing businesses to reopen.

Additionally, “Regarding COVID, we don’t yet know how long immunity lasts for those that have already been infected,” Godes said.

The majority of Garfield County’s cases to date — 55.5% — have been among those ages 20-59. A growing number — 9.3% — are also showing up in the 10-19 age group.

In the vast majority of those cases, though, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks.

For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death — though the vast majority of people recover. To date, more than 25 people in Garfield County have had serious enough cases to require hospitalization.

A much smaller percent of county’s cases so far, 17%, has involved those age 60 and older. The county’s two deaths to date as a result of COVID-19 involved males in their 80s.

“Part of that is because our older and more vulnerable groups have decided to limit their personal exposure to the virus,” Godes said.

“They do not have to feel completely isolated, though. There are ways that we can incorporate social visits and interaction, even with our highest-risk individuals,” she said. “But we need to do it in a smart and considerate way in order to keep them safe, and to keep the virus from spreading further.” 

Latest Garfield County COVID-19 Statistics & Trends

Garfield County Stats

Cases to date (all clinics) — 290

New cases reported since June 25 —40

Rolling two-week onset of new cases (June 17-30) — 38

Deaths — 2 (none since April 9)

New hospitalizations since June 25: 3

Source: Garfield County Public Health

jstroud@postindependent.com


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