On Monday, President Donald Trump was released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he received some of the best medical care the world has to offer, and went home to the White House residence, which is equipped with its own fully-staffed medical suite. From there, he told the American people—none of whom would receive the same level of care should they get sick—not to fear the coronavirus. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (deemed an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), took the moment to spew medical misinformation and push the unfounded “herd mentality” strategy, the idea of reaching herd immunity by allowing the coronavirus to spread via natural infection.
In a blog post, Perkins first pushed the MAGA narrative that the president is a tough guy and that conquering COVID-19 would be added to his list of feats. It’s a narrative that Trump shaped himself, and one that the president has continued to peddle, even as he fell ill and appeared to allow his medical team to only share positive information about his prognosis. Returning from Walter Reed, he seemed as defiant as ever, stripping off his mask and entering the White House where aides milled about before taping a campaign-style video—to the chagrin on medical experts across the country, who say that anyone with COVID-19 should remain quarantined for at least 10 days after symptom onset.
“Other men might have hidden behind their doctors’ assessments,” but Trump is “confronting the virus head-on,” Perkins wrote. He accused the “other side” of encouraging Americans to cower in their homes, while Trump and his party have encouraged the economy and churches to reopen and gatherings and rallies to continue.
“While the other side is trying to push Americans back into their caves, President Trump refuses to believe that the solution is hiding out until the virus has passed,” Perkins wrote. “He made the decision long ago that the business of the country must go on, even choosing — to the horror of liberals and their friends in the media — to host a Rose Garden ceremony for the nomination [of] his Supreme Court pick, Amy Coney Barrett. Now, days later, as the country pours over the photo from that event, dissecting who was and wasn’t masked, there’s plenty of finger-pointing and speculation about who might have been exposed. But in the end, that’s all it is: speculation. The reality is, no one knows where and when the president was infected.”
One reason we don’t know where the president was infected or who he might have infected is that the White House has decided to not engage the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct contact tracing from the Sept. 26 White House gathering celebrating Trump’s announcement of Barrett, after which at least 12 other people in attendance tested positive. Another is that though the Trump administration conducts regular testing, testing is not foolproof, and many people in the Trump administration, and many with whom they interacted, have not worn masks or engaged in social distancing.
“Some people have noticed that I was in the photo too, sitting just a few seats away from former Governor Chris Christie,” Perkins wrote about the Rose Garden nomination event without mentioning that Christie tested positive for COVID-19 following the event. “I wasn’t wearing a mask, because I’ve already had coronavirus. And those of us who have the antibodies need to be out and about, because we become part of the process that stops the spread. But if we hide in our homes, waiting for a vaccine, we’ll never reach herd immunity. And in the meantime, we’ll destroy our economy, drive up societal pathologies because of isolation and stress, and leave hurting people — thanks to shuttered churches — without a single place to turn.”
There is no clear evidence how long antibodies protect against reinfection of the coronavirus or what level of protection they offer—or that patients are protected from reinfection at all. Scientists have seen a crop of reinfections around the world.
Herd immunity is achieved once a large portion of a population has survived infection or receives a vaccine and becomes immune to a virus, mitigating the threat of communal spread. It’s usually reached through vaccination. Allowing the coronavirus to spread uncontrolled could overwhelm hospitals as infections, hospitalizations, and deaths increase; the overwhelming majority of infectious disease or public health experts do not support the pursuit of herd immunity through this method.
Some advocates of herd immunity via natural infection, including Scott Atlas, the recently appointed Trump adviser from the conservative Hoover Institution, point to New York City as an example of a former coronavirus hotspot where sufficient herd immunity supposedly has been reached, but both Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, dispute that assessment. The National Geographic, in reporting that neither herd mentality nor a weak vaccine will stop the COVID-19 pandemic, addressed the claim that New York City was an example of sufficient herd immunity: “based on simple math, past experiences with outbreaks, and emerging evidence from the ongoing pandemic, this claim is a fantasy.”
But despite the controversy surrounding the idea of reaching herd immunity via natural infection, on Monday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar met with a few doctors who are proponents of the risky approach. “The idea of allowing the virus to spread uncontrollably is gaining traction in the White House,” The Hill reported.
While Trump tells Americans “Don’t be afraid” and “get out there,” and Perkins and right-wing activists echo his words, no mention is made of the more than 210,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19, with many more families and friends affected by their losses.