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Herd immunity ‘not really a viable strategy’ in Alaska’s COVID-19 fight, physicians say

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PALMER — Last week, a Mat-Su physician told reporters that healthy people need to expose themselves to COVID-19 so most of the population can develop herd immunity.

Herd immunity comes when a population develops immunity to an infectious disease through exposure and vaccination. It’s a controversial strategy touted by some to combat COVID-19 as an alternative to lockdowns ravaging economies.

Many researchers say without a vaccine, herd immunity is effective only if there’s very high level of population immunity that lasts a long time and against a virus that doesn’t mutate — conditions that don’t exist at this point in the coronavirus pandemic.

Wasilla physician Dr. Wade Erickson, a presenter at a Matanuska-Susitna Borough news media briefing last Wednesday, urged continued social distancing and mask wearing but said safely reopening the economy is key to acquiring immunity.

“We want our numbers to go up,” Erickson said. “We’d like to get 80% of us exposed and immune before this fall when the flu season starts.”

For young, healthy people who aren’t in contact with high-risk patients, “it’s important for you to get this disease," he said, urging anyone with symptoms to seek care and saying hopefully they would just get a “very mild” case.

That same day, about six hours later, the state’s chief medical officer stated a clear opposition to the herd immunity strategy when asked about a public push on social media for more cases.

COVID does tend to kill older or medically vulnerable patients, but it also causes major hospitalizations and stroke in younger, seemingly healthy patients, Dr. Anne Zink said during an April 29 press briefing.

“I think that to just say let’s just build up herd immunity all at once puts us at real risk for really affecting a lot of Alaskans, overwhelming our health care system, affecting those who are young and healthy as well as those who are older and vulnerable,” said Zink, a former emergency department director at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.

At a Mat-Su briefing Wednesday, the doctor who now serves as the hospital’s emergency director echoed Zink’s statements.

Herd immunity is not the right strategy for Alaska right now given the absence of a vaccine for the virus and the relatively low numbers of cases, said Dr. Thomas Quimby, an emergency physician who heads Mat-Su Regional’s COVID-19 task force.

As of Wednesday, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services was reporting 88 active cases out of a total of 372, including 38 hospitalizations and 10 deaths, with the most recent an Anchor Point man in his 80s who died Tuesday.

“We have some of the lowest incidence in the world," Quimby told reporters during a presentation Wednesday. “This is not really a viable strategy.”

The goal is to try to keep the incidence of the virus low by wearing face masks, staying at least 6 feet away from people and washing hands, he said.

Asked if his comments Wednesday came in response to Erickson’s the week before, Quimby said no. Erickson, well-known in the Valley medical community, established the first drive-thru COVID-19 testing here.

“Dr. Erickson is a fantastic individual ... his clinic has stepped up,” Quimby said.

Instead, he continued, his comments were directed at what he called a “really prevalent theme” arising around the country.

Numerous prominent medical organizations, including the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, have all said herd immunity is not something they want to promote, Quimby said. “We do want it, but without a vaccine it’s not a safe or viable or probably even a realistic option.”

Erickson declined to comment when contacted Wednesday.

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