by Jenny Johnston, MD
Happy November! I hope you have all had your flu shots and are feeling well! It seems fall has been short this year in Clearwater County. It is the time for sweaters, changing leaves and pumpkin spice flavored everything! I am one of your primary care providers at the Clearwater Valley Hospital and Clinics – Orofino Health Center. I love my job and being a part of this community. This week, I would like to discuss a topic brought to me by a patient about herd immunity.
Let’s talk about herd immunity! Herd immunity happens when a disease cannot spread because all or most of a group has protection against the disease. The term “herd” immunity comes from raising livestock and providing routine vaccinations to prevent disease in the herd. Vaccines provide antibodies and immunity that prevent infection from a disease. If a disease cannot infect anyone in the group, it will not spread. Another way to consider herd immunity is to have a group all become infected with a disease. Survivors of the disease are thought to have immunity. If the disease were to try to re-infect the same group, all of the group members would have immunity from the prior infection. Immunity would protect against re-infection. Again, if a disease cannot infect anyone in the group, it will not spread.
Even though some people may have dressed as livestock for Halloween this weekend, we are not livestock. However, just like livestock, groups of people experience herd immunity. This is how vaccines work. For example, if a community encountered a polio infection, if all (or even most) of the community is vaccinated for polio; the disease has no power. It cannot spread. This also protects people who cannot receive vaccines such as children with immune disorders. This is because the power of the immunity of most of the group will limit spread. Another example of herd immunity is the chicken pox (varicella) virus. Growing up, my family rushed me to the neighbor’s house when their family had a chicken pox outbreak. I then had the classic itchy, horrible rash the next week. This was to give me immunity against chicken pox and gain herd immunity.
Now on to coronavirus, HERD IMMUNITY IS THE GOAL! I repeat, herd immunity is the goal! We can do this with a global vaccine. Just like we have done for measles, mumps, polio and all the other infectious diseases that we are fortunate enough not to encounter frequently.
The question comes up, “what about letting everyone get coronavirus so we can have herd immunity?”. This is a common question from my patients, and this would protect us if the survivors had immunity. However, the consequences of this action would mean absolute devastation. Over one million people would die. One million may just be a number but that is one million families grieving the loss of their loved one. This makes me immediately think of my mother. My mother is an army veteran, loud-mouth, 90lbs-soaking wet, spitfire of a woman. I cannot imagine my life without her. She is over 65 and is considered high risk if she were to get coronavirus. What if she was one of the millions lost to coronavirus? I urge you to think of your loved ones and ask yourself, “what would I do for them?”. Most people would do anything to protect the ones they love. Everyone loves someone who is high risk for dying from coronavirus infection. Show them love and protect them until we can achieve herd immunity through a vaccine.
With more coronavirus infection, our healthcare system will buckle. For a few days last week, a few of our surrounding hospitals reached 99% capacity due to increase in coronavirus infections. What does this mean, if a hospital is full and cannot help people? This gives me a feeling of anxiety just thinking of myself in this situation. If a patient had a heart attack, severe coronavirus or stroke and I could not help them simply because there were no resources; this would be my nightmare. Also, a nightmare for the patient and their loved ones. We can achieve herd immunity without more pain and devastation brought on by coronavirus infection. A vaccine is coming. Over 45 vaccine trials are currently underway. It will come, but it needs to be done safely and this takes time. I read recently that scientists are hoping to have a vaccine available early next year.
This week, I am the doctor caring for patients that are hospitalized. I have seen an increase in COVID19 infection and feel the fear of infection in our community. My family and I moved here about 1 year ago. We have fallen in love with this place and our community. People truly live by the verse “love thy neighbor as thyself”. We are proud to call this our Idahome. Please, love your neighbor and help us achieve herd immunity when a vaccine is available. Until then, love your neighbor by wearing a mask. Love your neighbor by limiting social gatherings. Love your neighbor by washing your hands. WE CAN DO THIS!
Want more info? Most critical care (ICU) doctors follow the American Lung Association’s blog. Think like an ICU doctor and read more about herd immunity at: https://www.lung.org/blog/understanding-herd-immunity.
It is a pleasure to work in this community. If you have any questions, concerns, jokes or words of wisdom; feel free to contact me at the Orofino Health Center at 208-476-5777. Thank you!