During a town hall on ABC Tuesday night, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked President Donald Trump why he said that he liked to “downplay” the threat posed by Covid-19 to the American public.
Here’s the exchange that followed:
Trump: I’m not looking to be dishonest. I don’t want people to panic. And we are going to be OK. We’re going to be OK, and it is going away. And it’s probably going to go away now a lot faster because of the vaccines.
It would go away without the vaccine, George, but it’s going to go away a lot faster with it.
Stephanopoulos: It would go away without the vaccine?
Trump: Sure, over a period of time. Sure, with time it goes away.
Stephanopoulos: And many deaths.
Trump: And you’ll develop – you’ll develop herd – like a herd mentality. It’s going to be – it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen. That will all happen.
What that back-and-forth proves is that Trump’s understanding of the virus, which has sickened more than 6 million Americans and killed almost 200,000, is still very, very rudimentary.
Let’s get the one thing Trump got right in his answer out of the way: Yes, a vaccine would help reduce the number of people getting Covid-19. So when Trump says “it’s probably going to go away now a lot faster because of the vaccines,” he is, broadly speaking, correct – if decidedly inarticulate.
Now to the rest of what Trump said.
First off, “herd mentality” is what drives Trump’s supporters not to wear masks when gathering in large crowds (or ever). It’s not what governs viruses.
What Trump means is “herd immunity,” which the Mayo Clinic defines this way: “Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. As a result, the whole community becomes protected – not just those who are immune.”
It’s not clear whether Trump was referring to herd immunity in the context of people getting Covid-19 or people getting the eventual Covid-19 vaccine. (Why wasn’t Trump clear about that? Well, there’s at least the possibility he doesn’t know the difference.)
If Trump was referring to herd immunity when it comes to the number of people getting the virus, well, then he was talking about a massive loss of human life – well in excess of the 400,000+ American deaths that one oft-cited model is projecting by January 1, 2021.
The Mayo Clinic, for example, said that experts estimate 70% of Americans would have to contract and then recover from Covid-19 in order for herd immunity to be achieved. That would mean 229 million cases. It is hard to know for sure what the death rate from Covid-19 is, but it is safe to say that many cases would lead to an astronomical number of deaths.
Which, well, wow.
If Trump was referring to the acquisition of herd immunity via vaccine, his repeated assertions that the virus will disappear quickly is also wrong.
Again, in order to achieve herd immunity, a very big chunk of the population needs to have the antibodies for the virus. That happens either by getting sick and recovering or by getting a vaccine that includes a small amount of antibodies that, ideally, create immunity to Covid-19.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that by January 1, 2021, a vaccine has been approved for widespread distribution that has proven effective in large numbers of people. In order to achieve Trump’s idea of herd immunity, we need millions of Americans to get the vaccine.
Except that, if polling on the issue is right, there are still a lot of people who are very skeptical about getting a Covid-19 vaccine. In an NBC News poll conducted in mid August, just 44% said they would get a coronavirus vaccine if one becomes widely available, while 22% said they wouldn’t and 32% said they weren’t sure what they would do. So, yeah.
And even if that magic number of Americans were willing to get the vaccine, it would take time to make it happen. Consider that in 1978 the CDC set a goal of eliminating measles by 1982 – and failed.
In short: There really is no quick fix here. While a vaccine would undoubtedly increase – rapidly – the number of people with Covid-19 antibodies, it would not create herd immunity anytime soon.
It’s not at all clear if Trump understands, well, any of this. He’s just making promises about vaccines and riffing on “herd mentality” when the human cost of our ongoing fight against the coronavirus just keeps rising. What he doesn’t seem to grasp is that none of this is going to just magically disappear – no matter how many times he says it.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to remove an unverified calculation about herd immunity and correct what is currently known.