One of the pandemic’s most insidious misconceptions is getting closer to explicit national policy. On Monday, The Washington Post reported that a top Trump medical adviser, Scott Atlas, has been “urging the White House to embrace a controversial ‘herd immunity’ strategy.” Atlas subsequently denied the report, though during his time as a Fox News commentator he consistently argued in favor of fringe approaches that go hand in hand with the idea: namely that city and state shutdowns are deadlier than the coronavirus itself.
The idea of abandoning preventive measures and letting the virus infect people has already gotten traction in the administration. Just last week, Atlas moved to ease up on the most important strategy to fight the virus—widespread testing—by telling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change its guidelines to advise against testing asymptomatic people. On Monday night, the president referenced the concept in an appearance on Fox News, explaining, “Once you get to a certain number—we use the word herd—once you get to a certain number, it’s going to go away.”
But “herd-immunity strategy” is a contradiction in terms, in that herd immunity is the absence of a strategy. Herd immunity is an important public-health concept, developed and used to guide vaccination policy. It involves a calculation of the percentage of people in a population who would need to achieve immunity in order to prevent an outbreak. The same concept offers little such guidance during an ongoing pandemic without a vaccine. If it were a military strategy, it would mean letting the enemy tear through you until they stop because there’s no one left to attack.