COVID-19 'herd immunity' would lead to 30,000 more Michigan deaths, according to health experts

click to enlarge A person protesting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's coronavirus policies. - STEVE NEAVLING
Steve Neavling
A person protesting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's coronavirus policies.

As we enter the eighth month of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, the concept of "herd immunity" is growing more enticing to some. The idea is that if a sufficiently high proportion of people become immune to the virus, it could stop its spread and we could go on with our normal lives. The concept was recently suggested by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who told MLive that he believes "there’s an element of herd immunity that needs to take place" as the state reopens its economy.

But on Monday, five public health experts signed an open letter denouncing Shirkey's comments.

"If 'herd immunity' were to begin after about 80% of the state’s population has been infected, as some believe, then 6.5 million more Michiganders would still need to contract COVID-19," they wrote. "At the current mortality rate, this would mean more than 30,000 additional deaths — more than four times the number of deaths to date."

The experts say a better alternative would be "to control the spread of the coronavirus through policies based on evidence, followed by broad use of a safe and effective vaccine when available."

Earlier this month, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down Whitmer's emergency powers, nullifying many of her executive orders — a move Shirkey supported. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued an order to keep in place many of Whitmer's orders, including mask requirements, limitations on gatherings, and restaurant and bar restrictions, through the end of October.

Any further coronavirus efforts must be approved by the Republican-led Legislature. Shirkey, however, opposes a mask mandate.

"I think it's concerning that the top Republican in Michigan government is an anti-masker and doesn’t want to encourage or require everyone across the state to mask up," Whitmer said at a recent press conference, adding he has shown "a real disdain for science and ignorance of the epidemiology we are up against."

In the letter, the health experts asked Shirkey to "clarify your remarks about herd immunity to avoid leaving the impression that a leader of your stature is supporting greater spread of coronavirus as public policy." They also requested a Senate hearing with public health experts.

"Such a hearing would give experts the opportunity to share evidence, as well as provide Senators the chance to ask questions about the virus, its spread, and what can be done to save more lives," the wrote.

The letter was signed by Joshua M. Sharfstein, M.D. Professor of the Practice in Health Policy and Management Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Thomas M. File, Jr., MD, MSc, FIDSA President, Infectious Diseases Society of America; Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. President and Chief Executive Officer Resolve to Save Lives, an Initiative of Vital Strategies Former Director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Ashish K. Jha, M.D., M.P.H. Dean Brown University School of Public Health; and Carlos Del Rio, M.D. Distinguished Professor Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases Emory University School of Medicine.

Michigan has reported more than 133,134 known COVID-19 cases and 6,876 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

You can read the letter below.

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland "Lee" DeVito grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he read Metro Times religiously due to teenaged-induced boredom. He became a contributing writer for Metro Times in 2009, and Editor in Chief in 2016. In addition to writing, he also supplies occasional illustrations. His writing has been published...
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