Remember this headline? You might have missed it, what with the onslaught of news and scandals. In mid-December, emails made public by the House committee overseeing the government’s pandemic response show that Paul Alexander—who was installed by President Trump in April to lead the HHS’ communications efforts—wrote to his higher-ups multiple times throughout June and July arguing that there is “no other way” to tackle Covid-19 except establishing “herd immunity” by allowing non-risk groups to expose themselves to the virus.
“Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk,” wrote Alexander in a July 4 message to his boss, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo, saying “we want them infected” to help “develop herd.”
Similarly, on July 24, Alexander wrote to the Food and Drug Administration’s Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Associated Commissioner for External Affairs John Wagner and numerous top HHS officials arguing that it “may be best to open up the flood zone and let the kids and young folk get infected.”
In the emails, Alexander also acknowledged that the Trump administration was aware its policies would increase the spread of Covid-19, urged HHS staff to release more “positive statements” in support of the administration’s pandemic response and cast blame on scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci for offering less rosy assessments of the situation, accusing them of trying to “make the president look bad.”
The published emails don’t include the replies from Alexander’s supervisors to his guidance aside from a skeptical—“How can this be researched and proven true or false?”—written by Caputo in response to a claim made by Alexander about herd immunity on a cruise ship.
The HHS has previously disavowed herd immunity, with Secretary Alex Azar in October insisting it was “not the strategy of the U.S. government with regard to the coronavirus,” although the House watchdog pointed out that high-profile members of the administration on multiple occasions echoed the messaging promoted by Alexander soon after his emails were sent.
The agency drew a thick line between itself and Alexander in a Wednesday statement to Forbes, saying “his emails absolutely did not shape department strategy” and emphasizing that he was a “temporary Senior Policy Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and is no longer employed at the Department.”
I’m quoting this because the idea of herd immunity by infection offers a useful, if grim, lens to look at the status of CDCR infections. Right now, CDCR has 6406 new confirmed cases in the past 14 days, and the overall infection number has risen to 41,449 cases–more than 40% of the entire prison population. All prisons have outbreaks, and 29 out of 36 prisons have serious outbreaks (more than 50 cases.) But in some prisons, the rate of infection is staggering. According to today’s data, eight prisons have had more than 60% of their population infected:
We chose 60% and above because estimates of the rate of infection necessary for herd immunity is estimated by experts to hover between 60% and 80%.
In case you are inclined to see this as good news, don’t. Here’s a primer from Johns Hopkins about herd immunity, which was written in April, when the current infection rates in the U.S. seemed horrendously farfetched. “As with any other infection,” they explain, “there are two ways to achieve herd immunity: A large proportion of the population either gets infected or gets a protective vaccine.” They go on to explain why the former option is not a good idea:
With some other diseases, such as chickenpox before the varicella vaccine was developed, people sometimes exposed themselves intentionally as a way of achieving immunity. For less severe diseases, this approach might be reasonable. But the situation for SARS-CoV-2 is very different: COVID-19 carries a much higher risk of severe disease and even death.
The death rate for COVID-19 is unknown, but current data suggest it is 10 times higher than for the flu. It’s higher still among vulnerable groups like the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. Even if the same number of people ultimately get infected with SARS-CoV-2, it’s best to space those infections over time to avoid overwhelming our doctors and hospitals. Quicker is not always better, as we have seen in previous epidemics with high mortality rates, such as the 1918 Flu pandemic.
It would be tempting to juxtapose the Paul Alexander emails and the CDCR numbers and suggest that CDCR’s COVID-19 policy team have lifted their prevention strategy straight out of Trump’s playbook, but I think that assumes a much higher degree of premeditated planning than what is actually going on, which is chaos. Systemwide, the percentage of infections (more than 40%!) is staggering, but not at a high enough level to provide herd immunity for a minority of non-infected people; institution-wide, this means that CDCR’s explicit party line–transfers, rather than releases as its modus operandi–is likely to backfire spectacularly. Shifting people from places with fewer infections to places with more infections puts their lives in danger and risks transferring the new strain of COVID-19 before the vaccination plan is completed (I will post about how that’s going tomorrow, but for now just know that vaccinations are not underway in the worst outbreak sites and that the priority process raises serious concerns.) Shifting people from places with lots of infections to places with fewer infections, as the so-called “remedy” CDCR has fashioned for the San Quentin disaster, dilutes herd immunity and generates horrific outbreaks like the ones we’ve seen at Avenal, Folsom, SATF, CVSP and other facilities.
These problems are going to persist as long as CDCR willfully ignores the obvious solution: release aging, infirm people to the community, where they are safer for all of us.