Herd immunity with coronavirus stirs debate among Alaska medical professionals

Published: Apr. 30, 2020 at 2:17 PM AKDT
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The idea of herd immunity as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19 has triggered a debate among Alaska's medical professionals.

Herd immunity - also known as community immunity - is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a "situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely. Even individuals not vaccinated (such as newborns and those with chronic illnesses) are offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community."

On Wednesday, Dr. Wade Erickson, with the Capstone Clinic in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, said during a press conference that he wants to see coronavirus cases go up.

“If we don't allow for herd immunity, we are not going to be able to resume our normal lifestyles in the very near future,” Erickson said.

Erickson mentioned that it was okay if young and healthy people get the virus so long as they seek medical care early. He said people who are high risk should remain at home and isolated.

“We need to gather immunity in our community and in order to do that we need to safely reopen, which we are attempting to do, we are going to see in the next two weeks whether our case numbers spike,” he said. “And more importantly, whether our hospitalizations spike, we want our case numbers to go up, we'd like to get 80 percent of us exposed and immune.”

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zinke said there has been a conversation about building up immunity, but it’s still evaluating the risks associated with the epidemiological concept.

“It's important to realize that while people who tend to die from this disease tend to have higher morbidity, we see very young people, and very healthy people, having very significant consequences from this disease, including hospitalization, stroke, and other significant complications,” Zinke said.

She said more than a quarter of the patients who have been hospitalized in the United States from COVID-19 had no preexisting conditions.

“To just say let's just build up herd immunity all at once, puts us at real risk for really affecting a lot of Alaskans, overwhelming out healthcare system, affecting those who are young and healthy, as well as those who are older and vulnerable,” she said.

The U.S. has been successful at creating herd immunity for several infectious diseases like chickenpox, mumps, measles and polio.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases and member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force has said that the country can’t depend on herd immunity until enough people get infected, or enough people get vaccinated.

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