Senators: herd immunity rather than social distancing to help Nebraska economy

by William Bauer
Nebraska News ServiceTwo state senators want Nebraska to loosen restrictions enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus to help the state’s hurting economy.Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings and Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said they believe fear and panic directed policy decisions surrounding the pandemic, and they are ready for businesses, schools and Nebraska’s Legislature to reopen.

“We cannot afford to go another day with this current failed policy,” the senators wrote in a commentary piece published in the Hastings Tribune April 12.

While Gov. Pete Ricketts agrees with Halloran and Erdman about the opening business as soon as possible, he said he fundamentally disagrees and does not plan to open the state’s businesses and schools just yet, citing Grand Island as an example of how quickly the virus can spread.

“The big key, again, is what we have said all along: making sure we don’t overwhelm the healthcare system,” Ricketts said April 13 during his daily press briefing.

In the commentary, the senators propose a contradictory method of curbing the effects of the coronavirus: herd immunity, which is when a population builds a resistance to a disease as a high percentage come in contact with a virus and develop antibodies. This process limits the number of people who can spread the disease and, therefore, lowers the risk to others within the population.

The senators did not state how many Nebraskans would die as a result in their commentary but wrote herd immunity could defeat the virus in four weeks.

Using herd immunity was proposed in early April by Knut Wittkowski, former head of the Department of Biostatistics at Rockefeller University in New York City, in opposition to the social distancing and flattening the curve recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wittkowski proposed keeping schools open and children mingling to spread the virus in order to achieve herd immunity. Flattening the curve prolongs and widens the respiratory disease, he said.

Rockefeller University said in a statement April 13 that Wittkowski’s opinions do not represent its own, pointing out that he never held the title of full professor at the university.

“If you look at the statistics for coronavirus nationwide, the survival rate is very high,” Halloran told NET News April 13 in defense of herd immunity. “We’re focusing way too much on the number of people who have gotten it but not enough on those that recovered from it.”

The senators said complaints from businesses, cattlemen and feedlot operators about the state of the economy prompted their opinion on this issue. They wrote that the nation’s infectious disease experts and the nation’s efforts to slow the spread were flawed, as the lockdown was too broad and should have focused on isolating the at-risk population, banning large gatherings and focusing on hotspots.

“The lockdowns have devastated our economy, set our students back and made the cure worse than the disease,” they wrote.

When asked about herd immunity on April 13, Ricketts said people will, of course, be exposed over time.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure we slow that down, so that we don’t overwhelm the health care system,” the governor said.

In Grand Island, that was the concern, Ricketts said of the central-Nebraska city which has become of the hotspot for COVID-19 cases in the state. Central Health District Health Director Teresa Anderson has said she worries about the capacity of Grand Island’s healthcare system if cases continue to balloon in Nebraska’s third-largest city.

Loosening restrictions, Ricketts said, may be considered gradually over time depending on what the data says as the statewide directed health measures expire in late April.

All of this comes a few weeks after Ricketts drew criticism from 45 Grand Island doctors and the public about not issuing a statewide stay-at-home order. Nebraska is one of seven states without such an order, and the governor has said many times he does not plan to issue one.

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