The conspiracy theorists are wrong: Doctors are not inflating America’s COVID-19 death toll for cash. What about Herd Immunity and Oh, those Ignorant College Students!

As the terrible fires continue to burn and Nancy Pelosi says that Mother Nature is angry with us and the political atmosphere is all about hate, I sometimes don’t know who to believe, especially when it comes to the media. Andrew Romano reported that earlier this week, Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst became the first member of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” to embrace a false online conspiracy theory that seeks to minimize the danger of COVID-19 by claiming only a few thousand Americans have died from the virus — not the 185,000 reported by state and local health agencies and hospitals. 

Ernst, who described herself as “so skeptical” of the official death toll, even went so far as to echo the nonsense argument spread by QAnon and other right-wing conspiracy-mongers that medical providers who have risked their own lives and health to treat COVID-19 patients have been attributing non-COVID deaths to the virus to rake in extra cash from the federal government. 

“These health-care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” Ernst, who is facing a tight reelection race, said Monday at a campaign stop near Waterloo, Iowa, according to a report by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

“They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19,” Ernst added in an interview with the paper. “I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.”

Since Ernst is “really curious,” here are the facts.

Yes, Medicare pays hospitals more for treating COVID-19 patients — 20 percent more than its designated rate, to be exact. Incidentally, this additional payment was approved 96-0 in the U.S. Senate — including by Joni Ernst. The reason Ernst (and all of her Senate colleagues) voted for it is simple: It helped keep U.S. hospitals open and operating during a worldwide emergency.

“This is no scandal,” Joseph Antos, a scholar in health care at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, explained in a recent PolitiFact fact-check. “The 20 percent was added by Congress because hospitals have lost revenue from routine care and elective surgeries that they can’t provide during this crisis, and because the cost of providing even routine services to COVID patients has jumped.”

In other words, no one is getting rich by misclassifying COVID-19 deaths.

It’s also fair to say that fewer than 185,000 Americans have died “singularly,” as Ernst put it, from COVID-19. According to a recent update by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 94 percent of patients whose primary cause of death was listed as COVID-19 were also judged to have comorbidities — secondary conditions like diabetes that often exacerbate the virus’s effects. For the remaining 6 percent, COVID-19 was the only cause listed in conjunction with their deaths.

On Sunday, President Trump retweeted a QAnon backer who falsely claimed this meant that only 6 percent of reported COVID-19 deaths — that is, 10,000 or so — were actually caused by the virus. Perhaps this “report” is what Ernst was referring to when she agreed Monday with an audience member who theorized that COVID-19 deaths had been overcounted. “I heard the same thing on the news,” she said.

Yet Twitter quickly removed the tweet for spreading false information, and for good reason.   

Despite all the innuendo, there’s nothing unusual about the way the government is counting coronavirus deaths, as we have previously explained. In any crisis — whether it’s a pandemic or a hurricane — people with preexisting conditions will die. The standard for attributing such deaths to the pandemic is to determine whether those people would have died when they did if the current crisis had never happened.

When it comes to the coronavirus, the data is clear: COVID-19 is much more likely to kill you if your system has already been compromised by some other ailment, such as asthma, HIV, diabetes mellitus, chronic lung disease or cardiovascular disease. But that doesn’t mean patients with those health problems would have died this week (or last week, or next month) no matter what. The vast majority of them probably wouldn’t have. COVID-19 was the cause of death — the disease that killed them now, and not later.

A closer look at the CDC data, meanwhile, reveals that many of the comorbidities listed by medical providers are complications caused by COVID-19 rather than chronic conditions that predated infection: heart failure, renal failure, respiratory failure, sepsis and so on.

Feverishly creating a baseless fiction from two threads of unrelated information — the additional Medicare payments and the CDC update about comorbidities — is a classic conspiracy-theorist move. But that doesn’t make it true.

“Let there not be any confusion,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said Tuesday. “It’s not 9,000 deaths from COVID-19. It’s 180,000-plus deaths.”

“The point that the CDC was trying to make was that a certain percentage of [deaths] had nothing else but COVID,” Fauci continued. “That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19. They did.”

In reality, it’s more likely that the U.S. is undercounting rather than overcounting COVID-19 deaths. According to a recent New York Times analysis of CDC estimates, at least 200,000 more people than usual died in the U.S. between March and early August — meaning that the official COVID-19 death count, which hit 140,000 over the same period, is probably too low. 

In the Hawkeye State, COVID-19 had killed at least 1,125 as of Wednesday afternoon. Over the past week, the state has reported an average of 1,177 cases per day, an increase of 124 percent from the average two weeks earlier. Its positive testing rate has risen from 10 percent to 18.5 percent since then. 

So while Republican lawmakers such as Ernst seek to downplay the lethality of the virus, Theresa Greenfield, Iowa’s Democratic Senate candidate, seized on her opponent’s baseless claim to underscore the gravity of the situation in one of the only states in America where the pandemic is getting worse.    

“It’s appalling for you to say you’re ‘so skeptical’ of the toll this pandemic has on our families and communities across Iowa,” Greenfield tweeted Tuesday, addressing the senator. “We need leaders who will take this seriously.”

Why a herd immunity approach to COVID-19 could be a deadly disaster

Reporter Rebecca Corey noted that since the coronavirus pandemic began, herd immunity has been floated by some experts as a possible solution to the deadly virus that has so far killed over 865,000 people worldwide. 

Herd immunity is possible when enough people have contracted and become immune to a virus, providing community-wide protection by limiting the number of people who can spread it. And while the strategy is considered controversial and even downright dangerous by many public health experts, it is also reportedly gaining momentum in the White House.    

According to a report by the Washington Post, herd immunity is a strategy being pushed by Dr. Scott Atlas — a neuroradiologist with no background in infectious diseases or epidemiology who recently joined the White House as a pandemic adviser. 

Atlas denied that he had encouraged the White House to adopt a herd immunity strategy, and on Wednesday White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci dismissed the idea that herd immunity was under consideration. An administration official, however, told CNN that the policies being promoted by Atlas are indeed akin to a herd immunity approach.   

Ordinarily, herd immunity would be acquired through a majority of the population being vaccinated — not through immunity acquired by natural infection. 

“Normally, when we talk about herd immunity, we talk about how much of the population needs to be vaccinated,” World Health Organization (WHO) COVID-19 technical lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said on Aug. 27. “If we think about herd immunity in a natural sense of just letting a virus run, it’s very dangerous because you would need a lot of people to be infected.” 

It’s still uncertain what percentage of a population would need to be immune to the virus in order to attain herd immunity. According to Johns Hopkins University, in general, the answer is 70 to 90 percent of a population, depending on how contagious the infection is. But a model published last month in the magazine Science found that the threshold needed for coronavirus herd immunity could be as low as 43 percent. 

Proponents of herd immunity have looked to emulate Sweden’s more hands-off approach; unlike most countries in Europe, the Nordic country opted out of a nationwide lockdown and kept most businesses open. 

But Sweden’s strategy didn’t entail a total return to normalcy. The Swedish government implemented a ban on gatherings of 50 people or more, and many Swedes voluntarily followed social distancing guidelines. 

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb noted in an op-ed published on Aug. 30 that in addition to being much larger than Sweden (a country with a population the same size as North Carolina’s), the U.S. has a high rate of citizens with preexisting conditions, which can lead to a higher rate of COVID-19 complications; about 10 percent of Americans have diabetes, and 40 percent are considered obese. 

Moreover, Sweden’s pursuit of natural herd immunity doesn’t appear to be working. A study released in June by the country’s Health Agency showed that only 6 percent of Swedes had developed antibodies to the coronavirus — though a recent study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and Karolinska University Hospital suggests that immunity in Sweden may be higher than antibody tests indicate. 

The role of antibodies and how much of an impact they have on long-term immunity is still questionable. A U.K. study, which had not yet been peer-reviewed, found that antibodies may start to decline 20 to 30 days after the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. And a Chinese study found that antibody levels in patients who had recovered from COVID-19 fell sharply within two to three months after infection. 

Falling antibody counts may not necessarily mean waning immunity; other immune responses such as T-cells could also affect how long immunity lasts. But the case for natural herd immunity is made even more improbable by reports of coronavirus reinfections in Hong Kong, Europe and the U.S. If natural immunity is as short-lived as a few months, that wouldn’t be stable enough to provide community or nationwide protection.    

Yahoo News Medical Correspondent Dr. Dara Kass says waiting to reach the minimal number of infections needed for natural herd immunity to work would not only take longer than waiting for a vaccine (which could come before the end of the year, according to the CDC) but would also likely cost more lives. Even if only 40 percent of the U.S. population needed to contract and recover from COVID-19 to reach natural herd immunity, Kass argues, that would mean another 126 million more Americans would still need to be infected.  

“It’s taken us six months to get to 6 million infections,” Kass says. “What if we just said, let’s live life like normal? Let’s not wear masks, let’s not socially distance, let’s ride the subways and go to work. How fast could we get to 126 million infections? One year? Two years? Three years? We don’t know. But what we know is, the faster we infect people, the more people will die.” 

“We’ve seen so far 185,000 Americans die of this coronavirus with 6 million people infected,” Kass continues. “If we want to intentionally infect another 126 million Americans, that means that over 1 million more Americans would die of this virus before we infected enough people to get to any possible natural herd immunity.” 

According to a Gallup poll conducted in late July, 35 percent of Americans said they would not get a coronavirus vaccine even if it were FDA-approved and available to them at no cost. But Kass says a vaccine will likely be the key to any workable herd immunity strategy.

“The bottom line is, will herd immunity be the answer to this coronavirus pandemic? And the answer will be yes — but not natural herd immunity. We will get to herd immunity hopefully with the development of a safe, effective vaccine,” Kass says.  

“Until we have a safe and effective vaccine that is available to the hundreds of millions of Americans that still need to be exposed and recovered from this virus, we just need to continue to do the hard work, which means wear a mask, be socially distanced from people you don’t know, wash your hands multiple times a day and listen to the science.”

College Students Are Already Itching to Sue Frats Over COVID-19

So, is anyone surprised at the stupidity of college students returning to campus after this long imposed “lock-down?” Are you surprised at the number of positive COVID-19 tested students after all of their large parties?

Emily Shugerman reported that across the country, as college students return to campus with masks and hand sanitizer, fraternities and sororities are doing what they’ve always done: drinking and partying. 

At the University of Washington this summer, 137 students living in frat houses tested positive for the coronavirus after hosting raucous parties that violated their own internal guidelines. At the University of Alabama, students completed an entirely virtual rush process that ended with new members showing up in person to sorority houses, packing themselves together to take photos and then crowding the neighboring bars. The next week, the university announced more than 500 cases on campus.

For responsible students and their families, who could fall ill or have their classes canceled due to their classmates’ Greek Life antics, it all seems ripe for a lawsuit, right?

Not necessarily.

Two attorneys who specialize in litigation against frats told The Daily Beast they have received multiple inquiries from concerned students or parents wondering what their legal rights are when it comes to potential super-spreader events on their campus.

Attorney Douglas Fierberg said filing a lawsuit is absolutely an option, arguing that violating public health rules around coronavirus is no different than violating other safety rules, like a speed limit. 

“The violation of [safety rules] by someone with no excuse or justification renders them responsible for the harm that’s caused,” he told The Daily Beast. “That precedent has been around since the dawn of American jurisprudence.”

But David Bianchi, an attorney who helped draft Florida’s anti-hazing law, said it isn’t so simple. In order to win such a suit, the plaintiff would have to prove not only that the defendant acted negligently, but that the negligent behavior directly caused them harm. And in a pandemic—where the virus could be picked up anywhere from a frat house to a grocery store parking lot—that could be difficult to prove. 

“The defense lawyer will have a field day asking questions of the plaintiff about every single place they went for the seven days before the fraternity party, the seven days after the fraternity party, and they’re going to come up with a list of 50 places,” he said. “How do you prove that that’s not where they got it from?”

Bianchi said half a dozen parents called his office asking about the possibility of filing a lawsuit, and he told them not to bother.

“I call ’em like I see ’em, and I just don’t see it here,” he said.

Lawsuits against Greek organizations, for everything from wrongful death to sexual assault, are big business for personal injury attorneys. (In 2018, the parents of a freshman at Northern Illinois University won a historic $14 million settlement after their son died at a fraternity party.) 

And there’s no question that some are bracing for suits against fraternal organizations: Holmes Murphy, an independent insurance brokerage with a specialty in frats, wrote a blog post on how clients could avoid trouble.

“We’ve received many questions about whether or not a house corporation has a duty to do anything,” the post said. “This is a question that will ultimately be tested after a case and spread within a house occurs. There is certainly no shortage of lawsuits as a result of the pandemic. Ultimately, doing the right thing comes first. Start with the basics. That may be all you can do. But it is better than doing nothing.”

What’s hazier is the prospect for coronavirus lawsuits in general. Thousands of suits have been filed since the pandemic started—against schools, businesses, prisons, and pretty much anywhere else you can pick up a virus—but few have been decided. Some legislators have also pushed for laws giving businesses widespread legal immunity, in hopes of getting the economy back up and running. 

On college campuses, Fierberg said, legal actions may not happen right away—classes have only just started, and it takes time for someone to get infected, suffer a grievous injury, and find a lawyer. He predicted a rash of such suits in the next six months to a year.

“The time period that this is incubating is now,” he said. “What’s gonna happen in that experiment is yet to entirely show itself. If it comes out as Frankenstein then that’s one thing. If it comes out as something nice… well that’s a different thing.”

Why a Vaccine Won’t Be a Quick Fix for COVID-19

Medscape’s Brenda Goodman noted that nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all exhausted, stressed out, and looking for the exit, so hopes for a vaccine are high. Not only are we all stressed out but with the election only weeks away there is pressure to have a vaccine so that President Trump sees a bump in his numbers for re-election possibilities.

Numerous efforts are underway around the world to test, manufacture, and distribute billions of doses. A table maintained by the World Health Organization (WHO) lists 33 vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, currently being tested in people, with another 143 candidates in preclinical testing and I just reviewed an article which noted that there were actually 210 vaccines being studied.

The effort is so critical, the U.S. government is spending billions to make doses of vaccine that may be wasted if clinical trials don’t show them to be safe and effective. The goal of this massive operation, dubbed Warp Speed, is to deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective vaccines by January 2021.

As important as a vaccine will be, some experts are already trying to temper expectations for how much it will be able to do.

“We all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said at an Aug. 3 news briefing. “However, there is no silver bullet at the moment, and there might never be.”

Barry Bloom, PhD, an expert in infectious diseases and immunology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is even more direct: The idea that a vaccine will end the pandemic just isn’t realistic.

“That’s not going to happen,” he says. First, not enough people will get the vaccine. Second, for those who do take it, the vaccine may only offer partial protection from the virus.

“I am worried about incomplete availability, incomplete protection, unwillingness of a portion of a country to be vaccinated,” Bloom says.

At least at first, not enough people will get the vaccine for the world to achieve herd immunity, or community protection. Community protection robs the virus of the chance to spread easily. It occurs when enough people become immune, either because they’ve recovered from the infection or been vaccinated against it. This high level of immunity in a population cuts the chances that someone without immunity ― say an infant or someone who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons ― will be exposed to the virus and get sick.

Typically, the herd immunity threshold for an infection is somewhere between 70% and 90% of the population. We don’t yet know where the threshold is for COVID-19 because there are still big unanswered questions about how our bodies respond to the virus or a vaccine against it: Do most people respond in a way that protects them in the future? If so, how long does that protection typically last?

Even at the low end of the typical range for community protection ― 70% ― we’re still far short of that mark.

Recent studies checking blood samples submitted to commercial labs suggest that 5% to 10% of the population has recovered from a COVID-19 infection in the U.S. That’s just an average. The real number varies widely across the U.S., ranging from a low of about 1% in San Francisco to a high of about 20% in New York City, according to CDC data. Most of the country is still in the 3%-5% range ― still a long way from community protection against the virus.

So, most of the immunity needed to reach a level that would provide community protection would have to come from a vaccine.

“It’s not just getting a vaccine. It’s using it and using it appropriately,” Bloom says. “Vaccines don’t prevent anything. Vaccination does.”

Getting enough doses to enough people will take a while, even after a vaccine becomes available, for several reasons.

When vaccines against COVID are first approved, supplies will be tight. Initially, there may be enough doses for 10 million to 15 million people in the U.S. The first shots will be reserved for the people who need them most.

Just this week, the National Academy of Sciences came up with a draft plan for how to fairly distribute the vaccine, which would unfold in four phases. Those phases will take time to execute.

The first phase recommends that the first doses go to health care workers and first responders, with the next batch going to people with health conditions that put them at highest risk of dying from COVID, and to seniors living in group homes. Those groups make up just 15% of the population, according to the report.

Phase two, which covers about 30% of the population, calls for vaccination of essential workers at “substantially high risk of exposure,” teachers, people with health conditions that put them at moderate risk from the disease, people living in close contact with others (like prisoners and those staying in homeless shelters), and seniors who weren’t covered in phase one.

The largest chunk of the population, including children, who can be infected but may show few signs of illness, aren’t a priority until phase three, which also includes other essential workers. Phase three accounts for about 40% of the population. The last phase, everyone else, makes up about 5%.

Among those who are eligible for vaccination, not everyone is likely to agree to get one.

A recent poll by Gallup found that 35% of Americans ― or about one in three ― don’t plan on getting a COVID-19 vaccine, even if it’s free. Among the two-thirds of Americans who say they will be immunized, a large number plan to wait. A recent survey by STAT found that 71% will wait at least 9 months to get their shots.

Those numbers align with a recent poll by WebMD, which found that 73% of readers said they would wait at least 3 months to get a vaccine when one becomes available.

“I don’t find that shocking. I would think for people who are rational, wouldn’t you want to see what the data are on safety and efficacy before you made a decision?” Bloom says. “I’m worried about the 25% who, no matter what happens, won’t take the vaccine. Those are the people who really worry me.”

Vaccine hesitancy ― fear of getting any vaccine ― is growing. The WHO recently listed it as one of the top threats to global health, pointing to the recent resurgence in measles. Many countries have recently seen large outbreaks of measles. These outbreaks have been caused by an increasing number of parents refusing to vaccinate their kids.

Experts are worried that vaccine hesitancy will play a large role in whether the U.S. and other countries reach herd immunity thresholds. The Gallup poll found Republicans are less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats, and nonwhite Americans ― the group being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections ― are less likely to be vaccinated than whites.

Bloom and others believe that right now, we should be working on a way to overcome vaccine hesitancy.

“Policymakers have to start focusing on this,” says Robert Litan, PhD, JD, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

He thinks we shouldn’t try to overcome hesitancy by forcing people to take the vaccine. Instead, he wants the government to pay people to take it ― $1,000 each, or $4,000 for a family of four.

“That’s a lot of money,” especially now with the economy sagging and so many people out of work, Litan says. “I think a thousand dollars would get a lot of people to take the shot who would otherwise not take it.”

Litan ran the numbers, looking at various scenarios of how many people would take it and how effective the vaccine might be. He says he realized not enough people would be protected to fully reopen the country.

He says he’s not sure $1,000 is the right sum, but it should be generous because if people think the amount could go up, they will wait until it does, which would defeat the purpose of the incentive.

“I can’t think of anything else,” he says. “You either have carrots or sticks, and we can’t use sticks. It won’t work.” How Well Will It Work?

Getting enough people to take it is only one piece of the puzzle. We still don’t know how well any of the shots might work, or for how long that protection lasts.

Researchers have now confirmed at least four cases of COVID-19 reinfection, proving that the virus infected the same person twice.

We still don’t know how common reinfection is, but these cases suggest that some people may need a booster dose of vaccine before they’re fully protected against the virus, says Gregory Poland, MD, an expert in immunity and vaccine responses at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

That’s similar to the way we dole out vaccines for seasonal flu, with people urged to get the shot every year, he says.

That’s another reason it could take a while to reach herd immunity.

It’s also not clear how effective a vaccine may be.

The FDA and WHO have said that a vaccine should be at least 50% more effective than a placebo to be approved. But that could mean that a shot merely decreases how bad an infection is but doesn’t stop it. That would be an important effect, Bloom says, but it could mean that even vaccinated people would continue to spread the infection.

“If it prevents disease, but doesn’t prevent growth in the upper respiratory tract, there is a possibility there will be a group of people who will be infected and not get sick because of the vaccine but still have the virus in their respiratory tract and be able to transit,” Bloom says. “That would not be the ideal for a vaccine, but it would protect against disease and death.”

He says the first studies will probably measure how sick vaccinated people get and whether or not they need to be hospitalized.

Longer studies will be required to see if vaccinated people are still able to pass the virus to others.

How effective any vaccine may be will also depend on age. In general, older adults ― the ones who most need protection against COVID-19 ― don’t respond as well to vaccines.

Our immune systems get weaker as we get older, a phenomenon called immunosenescence.

Seniors may need specially formulated vaccines ― with added ingredients, called adjuvants ― to get the same response to vaccines that a younger person might have.

Lastly, there’s the problem of reintroduction. As long as the virus continues to spread anywhere in the world, there’s a risk that it could reenter the U.S. and reignite infections here.

That’s what happens every year with measles. In most states, more than 90% of people are vaccinated against measles. The measles vaccine is one of the most effective ever made. It gives people substantial and long-lasting protection against a highly contagious virus that can stay in the air for long periods. You can catch it by walking through the same room an infected person was in hours before.

Every year, travelers come to the U.S. carrying measles. If they go to a crowded place, like a theme park, it increases the chances that initial infection will touch off many more. As vaccine hesitancy has increased in the U.S. and around the world, those imported cases have sparked outbreaks that have been harder and harder for public health officials to extinguish, raising the risk that the measles virus could become endemic again in countries like the U.S.

For the world to be rid of COVID-19, most of the world has to be vaccinated against it. There’s an effort underway ― called COVAX ― to pay for vaccinations for poorer countries. So far, 76 of the world’s wealthier countries have chipped in to fund the effort. The U.S. has not. The Trump administration says it won’t join because of the WHO’s involvement in the effort, a move that may place the plan in jeopardy.

For all these reasons, it will probably be necessary to continue to spread out, wear masks, and be vigilant with hand hygiene to protect yourself and others for the foreseeable future.

“For now, stopping outbreaks comes down to the basics of public health and disease control,” Tedros said.

We may get a vaccine, but we will still need to be able to test enough people for the virus, warn their contacts, and isolate those who are infectious to keep the epidemic under control, or, as Tedros has urged, “Do it all.”

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