Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

The White House is embracing a dubious route to “herd immunity,” a strategy rejected by most health experts.

Jonathan WolfeAmelia Nierenberg


Credit…The New York Times

The White House confirmed this week that it is embracing a strategy rejected by most health experts to combat the coronavirus.

The approach aims to achieve “herd immunity” — the point where the virus stops spreading because enough people are immune — not by vaccine, but by allowing the virus to spread unchecked among young healthy people, while using isolation to protect the elderly and otherwise vulnerable.

That thinking is central to a recent petition put forth by three scientists, titled the Great Barrington Declaration, that top administration officials told The Times this week that they are endorsing.

The petition argues against lockdowns and calls for a reopening of businesses and schools, and for those who are not vulnerable to “resume life as normal.” At least two of the petition’s signatories argue that societies may achieve herd immunity when just 10 to 20 percent of their populations have been infected, a proportion most epidemiologists believe is far too small.

Our science colleague Apoorva Mandavilli told us that the more widely accepted science suggests that herd immunity requires 50 percent or more of the population to be immune.

“Even 20 or 25 percent, really only New York is probably around that,” Apoorva told us. “The rest of the country is more around 10 percent, so we’re talking about possibly doubling the toll everywhere we’ve seen so far.”

She pointed out other flaws in the declaration including the assumption that only a small portion of the population is vulnerable and would need to isolate. “We’re worried about anybody with underlying conditions, like obesity and diabetes, and in the U.S. that’s almost half the population,” she said.

And even in young, healthy people, the virus can cause death or long-term damage.

“Some public health experts I’ve talked to worry that the White House embracing a strategy like this essentially gives license to every young person who doesn’t feel like taking precautions,” she said.

“This is like permission to go out, get themselves exposed to the virus, have parties and keep the virus circulating. It has the potential to cause a lot of death and a lot of illnesses, not just among the older people that it might spread to, but even among young people.”

Like way, way down.

Across American colleges and universities, freshman enrollment has dropped more than 16 percent from last year, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported today.

It’s even worse at community colleges, where most Black, Latino and low-income students enter the higher education system. There, freshman enrollment is down by what the center’s executive director, Doug Shapiro, called a “staggering” 22.7 percent.

In the 2008 recession, Mr. Shapiro said, community college enrollment went up.

The current drop could have repercussions for years.

“The big worry is that people who interrupt their education with the intention of completing it later don’t always do so,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations for the American Council on Education, a higher education trade group.

Undergraduate enrollment, Mr. Shapiro said, was down in every region and at nearly every type of institution.

In part, that’s a reflection of the national economy: Many college students have dropped out to avoid failing while they try to make rent and feed their children. Students are also postponing enrollment to avoid the strangeness of college right now. Online learning is inconsistent at best. Socializing is a mess. And campus quarantines can be both restrictive and ineffective. A New York Times survey counts more than 178,000 cases across more than 1,400 colleges — and at least 70 deaths — since the pandemic began.

“By following the rules, I missed the chance to celebrate my roommate’s birthday with friends, and I missed seeing my girlfriend,” wrote Nick Moran, the editor in chief of The Grand Valley Lanthorn, the college paper at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan. “Two weeks? Felt like an eternity.”

He is one of five college journalists who gave The Times reports on campus quarantines. Read their accounts here.

  • A top World Health Organization official said the weekly number of new coronavirus cases in Europe was now at its highest point since the start of the pandemic and urged governments to impose targeted controls on social gatherings. London is joining other big European cities in tightening restrictions.

  • Eleven members of the Swiss Guard have tested positive, according to a report in The Associated Press, prompting fears of an outbreak within the small corps at the Vatican charged with protecting the pope.

  • The Chinese government said that two officials in Qingdao, China, the director of the health commission and the president of the Qingdao Chest Hospital, have been fired and are under investigation amid a new virus outbreak linked to the hospital.

Here’s a roundup of restrictions in all 50 states.

I’m a widow, living alone. For eight years, a vulture has built her nest in the back of an old shed on this wooded property. I’ve watched with interest but little time as she found a mate, produced an infant, taught it to fly, and left until the next spring. But this year the pandemic has given me time to sit and observe. Not only observe, but sometimes leave old leftovers near the shed. Yesterday we lunched together, I on the breezeway, the family about a dozen feet away, finishing off old chili from the refrigerator. They listen to me and are semi-tamed, which is about all I can tolerate. Vulture friends — who would have thought that could happen except for Covid 19?

— Lois Clark Atkinson, Buckingham, Va.

Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.

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Jonathan Wolfe and Amelia Nierenberg