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


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.

See related PDF Public_Health_Experts_Letter_to_Sen._Shirkey.pdf
Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at [email protected].

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Detroit Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Metro Times Press Club for as little as $5 a month.