Opinion | White House

'Live with it' is the new GOP response to COVID — but no, we can't do that

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"Live with it." This is the new Republican campaign strategy to divert attention from the COVID-19 crisis. And, it is dangerous.  

The belief is that if we ignore the pandemic we will get numb to 100,000 new cases per day and the accompanying deaths. This is promoted by the erroneous statement that 99 percent of the cases are harmless, implying that if patients do not die then they merely had a harmless infection. Yet we know up to 20 percent get seriously ill and may suffer for weeks with the infection, may have to go on a ventilator. Those who survive may have permanent debilitating damage.  

We know very little about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It was unknown before last December; thus, we have had little time for the research required to understand the long-term effects of even a mild infection. Many viral infections, even mild ones, can alter us such that we may develop problems years after the infection. Some viral infections predispose people to cancer, for example, papilloma, polyoma, hepatitis and retroviruses.

Every member of the herpesvirus family stays with us for life after their initial infection and cause life-long problems, the least of which are the cold sores or genital sores most readily associated with herpes. Measles virus predisposes us to a rare, but fatal, neurological disorder called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis. Many other viruses alter our immune systems to our disadvantage. 

In reality, no viral infection should be considered harmless. This includes the "mild" SARS-CoV-2 infections. People under 50, and especially the 20-29-year-old group, are driving the present surge. Many are of the opinion that an infection will be mild - and that COVID-19 is a problem only for the elderly. But this opinion ignores the possibility of unknown effects that may endure or manifest later in life. They risk uncontrolled spread to family members and those with underlying conditions that may result in serious disease. And the reality is that there is increased serious disease and death occurring among the young and healthy as more young people are infected. 

Younger patients make up a growing percentage of total coronavirus hospitalizations, as high as 35 percent in recent weeks. Even children under 10, who seem to be more protected from infection and severe disease, have suffered multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C. MIS-C is a condition where multiple organs become inflamed, poses a serious risk and can be deadly. The threat of infection by SARS-CoV-2 should be taken seriously by every age group. 

Some, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), argue that it is good that infections are surging in the younger population because it will develop herd immunity in a population that will survive the disease. Let's consider the dynamics of this idea.   

Epidemiologically it is estimated that to attain herd immunity greater than 66 percent of the population must have been infected. In the process, long-term immunity to SARS-CoV-2 infection must develop; the caveat is that we do not yet know if the mild disease will elicit long-term immunity. Studies from Spain, which was hard hit by the pandemic, estimate that only 3-5 percent of the population tested developed SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, indicating that 95-97 percent of the population remains susceptible to infection. Likewise, the CDC has suggested that 92-95 percent of the U.S. population remains susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. In other words, the U.S. has a very long way to go to get the needed 66 percent serum-positive population for herd immunity. 

The U.S. population is 327 million; 66 percent of that is 215.6 million. If we estimate 3 years to attain herd immunity by natural spread and infection, then there must be an average of 197,000 new cases PER DAY. Assuming a 0.3 percent death rate, then there are 590 deaths per day or 646,000 over the three-year period. 

Sometime within this period a vaccine, or an effective anti-viral drug, is likely to become available. However, until this disease can be controlled by rational methods, it is essential to do all that we can to stop the unfettered spread of SARS-CoV-2 thereby reducing the damage to life, long-term health, society, and the economy.   

If we can be made numb to daily tallies of 197,000 new cases and 590 deaths, then we have lost our humanity. If we believe that 99 percent of infections are harmless and become numb to the damage COVID-19 is doing to our families, communities, and society, then we have lost our humanity. It is not too late to mitigate this crisis by the simple rules that are so often stated: face coverings, social distancing, hand washing, stay out of uncontrolled crowds and stay home. This does not mean lockdown, it means using caution and common sense in our new reality.

Our humanity, our society, and our democracy demand that we do not "live with it."

James Alwine is a virologist, a fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting professor at the University of Arizona. Felicia Goodrum Sterling is a virologist, president-elect of the American Society of Virology, and a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. She is a professor and scientist at the University of Arizona.

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