With Wisconsin setting daily records for COVID-19 cases, the idea that Donald Trump would come to town and rage against social distancing seems surreal. “Speaking of lockdowns," said Trump, “let's get your governor to open it up. Get him to open it up." Trump said that on Tuesday, the same day that the state set a record not just for cases, but for hospitalizations. And deaths.
When White House chief of staff Mark Meadows made clear last weekend that Trump’s strategy was not to even attempt slowing down the pandemic, it might have seemed like bad phrasing. A slip of the tongue. Something soon to be walked back. Except … not really. All that was walked back was the name. Doing absolutely nothing has always been Trump’s strategy.
From the first entry of the 2019 novel coronavirus into the United States, what Trump has wanted most is to simply ignore it. To say it’s going down to zero. That it’s going away. That magic will intervene. Trump hasn’t merely put his hands over his eyes like monkey #2, he’s actively decided not to test, not to trace, not to set any federal standards. The problem for Trump until recently is that medical experts lingering around the White House kept insisting that allowing people to die needlessly was a bad idea. It took Trump a few months to find someone who disagreed with that statement, but with retired radiologist Scott Atlas at the helm of the coronavirus task force, all pretense is being cast aside. Herd immunity isn’t just a deadly idea, it’s official policy.
Though it seems that Trump is still shying away from the actual phrase “herd immunity.” He could always go with “negligent homicide.” It means the same thing.
On Wednesday evening, The Daily Beast reported that the White House has “embraced” the concept of herd immunity with Atlas leading the charge. Atlas was brought on board in the spring specifically because of his right-wing media appearances, where he had publicly attacked experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci for insisting on testing, social distancing, and the value of masks.
In March, the U.K. government made it clear that herd immunity was a strategy that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was treating seriously. A proposal that appeared both there and in the United States proposed that simply allowing COVID-19 to spread, or even encouraging infection, would create the least disruption and allow the population to quickly reach a level where the pandemic would no longer be sustained. But even as this proposal was being announced, Oxford and others quickly showed that accepting this path forward meant buying into millions of deaths. Not only would COVID-19 carve a path across the nation, taking a percentage of the population equivalent to a world war, the high rate of hospitalization would strain the health system to the point of collapse, placing millions of others at risk. The U.K. backed away from the proposal—though not before casting their COVID-19 effort into such chaos that they still ended up with one of the worst fatality rates in the world.
In the U.S. it took Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, and others to walk Trump through the disaster of attempting to reach herd immunity. When Trump appeared in front of a chart that showed a potential two million dead, that chart was explicitly prepared to show him the cost of going with an official do nothing plan. Confronting Trump over the deaths that would result from herd immunity led to the March 13 White House event where Trump hosted CEOs from six major big box stores to announce a nationwide system of testing overseen by a website that, Trump said, was being written by “17,000 engineers at Google.”
But Trump never pulled the trigger on that testing plan. Soon after, Trump and the team of investment bankers and college buddies assembled by Jared Kushner, decided that not testing would be a better idea. They made that decision explicitly because the first surge of disease was generating most of its damage in the Northeast, and just letting those blue states burn would give them a political edge over Democratic governors.
The truth is that Trump never took action. There was no national testing strategy. No contact tracing effort. No national stay-at-home order. Not even any federally enforced guidelines.
In September, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany issued a statement denying that herd immunity was the official White House strategy. But herd immunity was already the de facto strategy before Atlas arrived. Placing Atlas at the helm made it more obvious. The only thing Trump seems to be trying to dodge is the term “herd immunity.” White House officials confirm that official policy is being set around exactly that idea. They’re just playing “a game of semantics” to avoid saying the phrase.
The number of people who would die from following this policy has not gone down. Neither has the effect following this policy would have on the nation’s already exhausted and strained healthcare system.
Worse still, Trump is pursuing a policy that is not only murder, it’s fantasy. Multiple studies have, from the very beginning, indicated that natural immunity to COVID-19 may not be long lasting. Studies out of the U.K. in the last week show that the level of antibodies in the population there continued to fall sharply month over month. And that’s happening even though the nation is nowhere close to reaching the levels of infection that would be required to reach anything like effective herd immunity. The absolute futility of a herd immunity strategy has become blindingly clear.
America is no more capable of reaching herd immunity for COVID-19 than it is for the common cold. Except this cold will take 1% to 3% of the population at each pass.