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Herd immunity occurs when the spread of a disease is slowed, because most people are immune. It is usually achieved when most of the population receives an effective vaccine. In fact, it is through vaccination that we have managed some of the world’s most serious contagious diseases, including the measles and polio.

Recently, some people have proposed achieving herd immunity by loosening COVID-19 restrictions to the point that most people would be exposed. This notion is (a) dangerous and (b) needless. Here’s why:

Lots more deaths. COVID-19 is everywhere. Disregarding the current recommendations amounts to planned exposure to COVID-19.

Doing so on a society-wide basis would cause millions of additional people to become severely ill and hundreds of thousands more to die — unnecessarily. Each one of the thousands of people we would lose is a mother, father, sister, brother, or child. The emotional toll has already been staggering, and it would be even more so.

Overwhelmed hospitals. Our hospitals are filled with selfless individuals who are working hard every day to meet the needs of those hospitalized with COVID-19 and patients in need of care for countless other conditions.

They are working to keep themselves and their families safe. In many areas, protective equipment is in short supply and stress is at an all-time high. A herd immunity approach would further tax our healthcare providers by forcing them to care for patients in too little space with too few supplies. It is nothing less than abusive.

Lasting complications. We are learning more all the time about the serious ongoing complications many of those who have become seriously ill with COVID endure.

New studies are finding that even those with mild illness could have ongoing health problems as a result. Approaching herd immunity without a vaccine could hinder our population’s health and happiness, not to mention our economy, for decades to come.

A vaccine is on the way. So much money, time, and effort — not to mention the best minds in infection prevention today — have been put to use to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. And the prospects are very good. In fact, SVMC has already received specialized freezers needed to store vaccine properly. Six vaccines are already in limited use. With the Food and Drug Administration rigorously ensuring the effectiveness and safety in the same way they always have, we can be confident that a vaccine will be in common use by this time next year.

We can control COVID until then. Our mitigation efforts are working! We have shown that wearing our masks, keeping out of crowded areas, socializing for short amounts of time mostly outdoors, and washing our hands control the spread of the virus.

It is only when we lapse in these efforts that outbreaks occur. When exposures occur, healthcare systems test so that health departments can trace contacts and quarantine those who have been exposed.

Please join me and my 12,000 colleagues at the Infectious Disease Society of America in an adamant rebuke of herd immunity in advance of an effective vaccine. All we need is a little patience and a little more fortitude to save lives, prevent serious illness and potentially life-long complications, and preserve hospital resources for those who truly need them. We can do it!

Marie George, MD, is an infectious disease specialist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.


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