Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Is the Trump campaign a victim of Coronavirus?

When the history of the 2020 presidential campaign is written, the Coronavirus pandemic will no doubt play a prominent role. President Trump has not yet lost the election, but if he does, the pandemic and his reaction to it will take a lot of the blame.

Much of the discussion about Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic focuses on the early months. Yes, the president restricted travel from China, but the policy had gaps and there were many missed opportunities as well. After the sort-of travel ban was imposed, the Trump Administration seemed to do little for the next two months until mid-March when the president shifted abruptly from “all is well” to a national emergency (this one far more justified than his national emergency on the Southern border). In September, Bob Woodward showed us that Trump had been aware of the Coronavirus threat all along but had been “playing it down.”

At the same time that Trump was downplaying the viral threat, his Administration was apparently ignoring the federal playbook for pandemics. The errors included not placing orders for emergency medical equipment until the middle of March despite having known since January that the Coronavirus was a deadly threat to Americans.

For the first few months, President Trump was the face of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Rather than boosting the president’s favorability, the face time with American audiences led to a decline in Trump’s approval rating. One of the most memorable moments from the daily press briefings was Mr. Trump riffing on the possibility of injecting disinfectants to combat the virus.

At a time when Americans needed to trust the president for life-and-death advice, Mr. Trump was a veritable fountain of misinformation. The president had a long and committed love affair with hydroxychloroquine. Even after it became apparent that the drug was ineffective against COVID-19, the benefits of hydroxychloroquine were an article of faith for Trump supporters. Likewise, the president told us that the virus could go away in the summer (spoiler alert: it did not), that it was like the flu (it is not), that children cannot catch the Coronavirus (they can), and that the virus would magically disappear (it has not done so yet).

Of all the former Trump staffers who have warned against re-electing the president, Olivia Troye is one of the most damning. The former aide to Vice President Pence and member of the Coronavirus Task Force said in a Twitter video, “It was shocking to see the president saying that the virus was a hoax, saying everything was okay when we know that it’s not.”

“The truth is that he doesn’t actually care about anyone else but himself,” she added.

Now, some of the Trump strategy is explained by a new recording from Bob Woodward in which Jared Kushner said last April that Donald Trump was taking control back from “the doctors.”

“We’ve now put out rules to get back to work,” Kushner said. “Trump’s now back in charge. It’s not the doctors. They’ve kind of – we have, like, a negotiated settlement.”

So now there is evidence of what many of us have said all along. President Trump was substituting his own “very, very large brain” for the medical expertise of America’s best doctors. The result was not only that the United States became one of the worst-hit countries of the pandemic, but the looming disaster was so transparent that Trump’s poll numbers were impacted very early on.

As far back as April, older voters, a core Republican constituency and the highest-risk group for the virus, were deserting President Trump in droves. A variety of polls from the swing states showed Trump’s support among seniors collapsing and the pandemic was undoubtedly a major reason why. The trend apparently started before the Coronavirus hit the US, but the pandemic accelerated the movement away from Trump.

The pandemic also erased much of Trump’s advantage on his signature issue: The economy. Fox News polling from the swing states in September found Biden and Trump almost equal on the economy while voters strongly preferred Biden to handle the pandemic. In truth, the president’s trade war pushed the economy into a recession in February, a month prior to the widespread outbreak of the virus in the US, but the economy would be much stronger without the added impact of the virus.

Mr. Trump’s reticence about masks and social distancing ultimately led to an outbreak in the White House that extended to his own family. In all, at least 36 people were infected in the White House outbreak. No deaths have been linked to the outbreak, but several, including the president, were hospitalized. Chris Christie spent seven days in intensive care.

Even contracting the disease himself, President Trump has not learned to take the pandemic seriously. The White House resisted contact tracing to limit the spread of the outbreak and on Sunday Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the Trump Administration had essentially given up on containing the virus and was going to concentrate on treatment at virtually the same time that the White House claimed that “ending the COVID-19 pandemic” was one of President Trump’s major first-term accomplishments. After being exposed to the virus by his chief of staff, Vice President Pence continued jetting around the country and making campaign stops rather than submitting to quarantine.

The mixed messaging comes as COVID-19 cases are spiking once again just prior to the election. New cases have surpassed the records set last summer. Even as the president says that the country is “rounding the turn,” the virus is spreading faster than ever before. The prospect of a long, deadly surge this winter and its associated effect on the economy seems to have ended the optimistic summer stock market rally.

Which brings us to what may be the final nail in the coffin of the Trump campaign. Last March, Congress passed and President Trump signed the CARES Act. The bill provided one-time checks to Americans and six months of relief for qualified American companies. Those programs expired in September.

After spending like drunken sailors (sometimes without congressional authorization) for four years, Republicans and the Trump Administration suddenly rediscovered fiscal conservatism when it came time to pass another pandemic relief package. Although talks with congressional Democrats have continued sporadically since July, the Senate has now adjourned until Nov. 9, ensuring that no relief bill will pass before the election. The failure to reach an agreement means that thousands of American businesses are at risk of failure and tens -if not hundreds- of thousands of American workers may lose their jobs. Right before an election.

There are many reasons that Americans are not voting for Donald Trump. The president has never been popular outside his own party. Rasmussen, a Trump-friendly pollster, found in September 2019 that 52 percent planned to vote against Trump. Still, the Trump Administration’s many failures in response to the pandemic did not win over many voters, if any.

The election is not over yet. Donald Trump may ultimately squeak out a victory and stay in office for another four years. If he does manage another fluke, it will be despite his handling of the pandemic rather than because of it.

President Trump took a gamble on pushing to reopen the country and ignoring medical advice about the Coronavirus so that he could be, in the words of Jared Kushner to Bob Woodward, the “open-up president.” In terms of the pandemic, the president lost his bet. The gamble cost many Americans their lives and their health. It may cost President Trump re-election as well.

Originally published on The First TV

Can Republicans hold the Senate?

 President Trump is trailing in both national polling and in the Electoral College. If Joe Biden becomes president, it becomes even more important for Republicans to maintain control of the Senate, but the structure of the 2020 elections in which the GOP is defending many more vulnerable seats than Democrats, as well as alarming polls, make keeping control of Congress’s upper body a difficult proposition.

As I discussed two weeks ago in my last look at Senate races, the dynamics of this year’s election mean that Republicans are defending 23 Senate seats while Democrats only have to defend 12. Most of these seats on both sides are in states that are not competitive, but, as you might expect, the sheer numbers mean that more Republican seats are vulnerable. As 2020 has turned progressively more ugly for Republicans, seats once thought safe for the GOP have become vulnerable. At this point, 10 Republican seats are at risk compared to only two Democratic seats.

On the Democratic side, the two seats that it was considered possible for Republicans to flip were those of Doug Jones in Alabama and Gary Peters in Michigan. When Doug Jones won the special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ seat against Roy Moore in 2018, everyone knew it was a temporary thing. Moore, a former state supreme court justice who was removed from the bench for judicial misconduct and who was the subject of sexual assault allegations, was a uniquely bad candidate. No one expected that Jones would win re-election against a more mainstream Republican.

The conventional wisdom appears to be correct. Most polling shows Jones trailing former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville by double-digit margins. As you’d expect for one of the reddest states in the nation, this looks like a Republican pickup.

Not so for Michigan. Republicans had high hopes for the Wolverine State after 2016, but it looks as though they will be disappointed. After a narrow win there over Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump is trailing by nine points. Republican John James is doing slightly better than the president but is still trailing by six points. Michigan seems destined to go blue again this year, leaving the Republicans with a gain of one seat.

That was the good news for Republicans. Now let’s look at the list of Republican seats that are at risk.

  • Arizona – Republican Martha McSally is not a bad candidate, but she is the victim of the poor timing of being a Republican candidate in the Trump era. McSally lost the race to replace Jeff Flake to Kirsten Sinema in 2018 and then was appointed to fill Jon Kyl’s seat. Now she is trailing Democrat Mark Kelly by four points, which is slightly better than Donald Trump’s position in the state. The race is somewhat of a tossup, but McSally is the clear underdog. The seat is likely to go blue.
  • Colorado – Republican Cory Gardner came into the Senate as a Tea Party candidate in 2014, but Colorado is trending more and more blue. Gardner is trailing by double digits in most polls and looks to be toast. This would be the Democrats’ second pickup.
  • Georgia – Republican David Perdue is facing surprisingly stiff opposition from Democrat Jon Ossoff. Perdue has narrowly led in most polling but a partisan Civiqs poll released yesterday showed Ossoff ahead by six points. Georgia’s requirement that a candidate wins a majority means that the race will probably go to a runoff in January where Perdue would likely have an advantage.
  • Georgia special election – Kelly Loeffler was appointed to replace Johnny Isakson last winter and now she is fighting for her political life. Loeffler is competing in a jungle primary against both Doug Collins, a Republican congressman, and Democrat Raphael Warnock (as well as a handful of other candidates). Both Republicans now trail Warnock but the runoff would likely favor the eventual Republican nominee.
  • Iowa – Joni Ernst, another 2014 Tea Partier, is in a close race with Democrat Theresa Greenfield. The race has tightened in recent weeks with two polls that show a one-point lead for Ernst, but Greenfield still leads the polling average by two points. This race could go either way but is a likely Democratic pickup even though Donald Trump may win the state.
  • Kansas – Republican Roger Marshall and Democrat Barbara Bollier are vying to replace the retiring Pat Roberts in this sleeper race. The race is surprisingly close, but Republicans should retain the seat.
  • Maine – Susan Collins has been a Republican that other Republicans love to hate for as long as I can remember. It looks as though Republican voters won’t have to worry about her swing votes after this year. They’ll be complaining about Democrat Sara Gideon, who has led in every poll since July. Maine could be the fourth seat that Democrats flip.
  • Montana – Donald Trump will win Montana handily but the Battle of the Steves in the Senate race is much closer. Republican Steve Daines narrowly leads Democrat Steve Bullock by three points. The seat will likely stay red.
  • North Carolina – Both the Senate and the presidential races in the Tar Heel State are tossups this year. Democrat Cal Cunningham has lost some of his lead after a sex scandal erupted a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, Cunnigham still holds a polling edge over Republican Thom Tillis. This is another tossup, but North Carolina could easily become a fifth Republican loss.
  • South Carolina – Polling favors Lindsey Graham in this surprise tossup although several recent polls have shown a tied race or a slight lead for Democrat Jaime Harrison. Republicans should hold this seat but there is a good opportunity for an upset.

The changing political situation is also leading to an additional Republican seat that may be vulnerable. Polling in Texas shows a very close race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but so far Republican John Cornyn has maintained a comfortable lead over Democrat MJ Hegar. The race is not a tossup but a few recent polls have indicated that the race may be tightening. As Trump struggles in the Lone Star State, the Senate race bears watching as well.

The big picture here is that Democrats are likely to lose one seat (Alabama) while Republicans are almost certain to lose three seats (Arizona, Colorado, and Maine) and are somewhat likely to lose as many as five (adding Iowa and North Carolina). If the Democrats get the breaks on Election Day, things could get even worse for the GOP. A net gain of at least two seats for Democrats is a virtual certainty.

A net gain of three seats for Democrats would mean a 50-50 tie in the Senate. In that case, the vice president would cast the deciding vote for legislative ties.

If Democrats take the three likely seats and then add two or more tossup races to their tally, they will win control of the Senate. They would fall short of a filibuster-proof majority, however. If Senate Democrats elected to retain the filibuster, Republicans would still have enough clout to act as a speedbrake on the progressive agenda, except for judicial nominations where Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have exercised their respective nuclear options.

At this point, the odds seem close to even money that the balance of the Senate next term will be a tie or a Democratic majority. The Senate races are looking slightly better for Republicans than the presidential race. Republican candidates may benefit from split-ticket voters who are experiencing Trump-fatigue but don’t want to hand the Democrats a blank check.

Originally published on The First TV

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Could problematic polling lead to another surprise Trump victory?

 As I discussed yesterday, it’s a week out from Election Day and the polls are not looking good for Donald Trump. The question on everyone’s mind is whether the polls could be off, leading to another unexpected result similar to 2016. Democrats are fearfully considering the possibility while Republicans are clinging to the hope that Trump can once again beat the odds.

The only way to answer that question for sure is to wait until next Tuesday, but we can gain some insights by comparing 2020 polling to that of 2016. Real Clear Politics has archived the final polls of 2016 for comparison to current polls.

On a national level, we see a very different race between 2016 and 2020. The race between Hillary and Trump was consistently much closer than the Biden-Trump race. Over the course of the 2016 campaign, Trump led in the polling average at least four times. In 2020, Trump has never been ahead of Joe Biden.

Hillary also maintained a much smaller lead than Biden. Over the final months of the campaign, when she was bedeviled by Wikileaks, Hillary never opened up a lead of more than seven points. In contrast, Biden’s lead over the same time period has not fallen to less than six points.

Further, the closing weeks of the campaign show a sharp decline for Clinton. Hillary’s polling average peaked on Oct. 18 and then began a decline that continued until Election Day on Nov. 8. Donald Trump experienced a sharp increase a few days later, which coincides perfectly with the release of James Comey’s letter to Congress on Oct. 28.

What do the polling trends show this year? Biden did begin a decline on Oct. 10. This predates the publication of the Hunter Biden emails on Oct. 14. At the same time, Trump closed slightly in the polls. The difference is that Hillary began her decline with a seven-point lead where Biden held a 10-point lead. As of this writing, Biden maintains a 7.3-point average lead even after the polls have tightened.

Finally, Hillary was never able to close the deal with voters. In the last days of the campaign, she never averaged better than 49 percent. In contrast, Biden is currently at 50.5 percent even after his polling drop.

Now, let’s look at the swing states. We’ll compare the current polling averages with the archived data from 2016. States where the result was contrary to polling are denoted by an asterisk.

  • Arizona
    2016 polling spread – Trump +3.5
    2016 result – Trump 4.0
    Current polling spread – Biden + 2.2
  • Colorado
    2016 polling spread – Clinton + 4.9
    2016 result – Clinton + 2.9
    Current polling spread – Biden + 9
  • Florida
    2016 polling spread – Trump + 0.2
    2016 result – Trump + 1.2
    Current polling spread – Biden + 1.2
  • Georgia
    2016 polling spread – Trump + 4.8
    2016 result – Trump + 5.1
    Current polling spread – Trump + 0.4
  • Iowa
    2016 polling spread – Trump + 3.0
    2016 result – Trump + 9
    Current polling spread – Biden + 0.8
  • Michigan*
    2016 polling spread – Clinton + 3.4
    2016 result – Trump + 0.3
    Current polling spread – Biden + 9
  • Nevada*
    2016 polling spread – Trump + 0.8
    2016 result – Clinton + 2.4
    Current polling spread – Biden + 5.2
  • North Carolina
    2016 polling spread – Trump + 1.0
    2016 result – Trump + 3.7
    Current polling spread – Biden + 1.2
  • Ohio
    2016 polling spread – Trump + 3.5
    2016 result – Trump + 8.1
    Current polling spread – 0.6
  • Pennsylvania*
    2016 polling spread – Clinton + 1.9
    2016 result – Trump + 0.7
    Current polling spread – Biden + 4.5
  • Wisconsin*
    2016 polling spread – Clinton + 6.5
    2016 result – Trump + 0.7
    Current polling spread – Biden + 5.5

As you can see, the state polls were not exact. In some cases the error benefitted Clinton, but in others it benefitted Trump. Clinton outperformed the polls in New Mexico and Nevada, where the polling average picked Trump to win, but we don’t hear about these examples because the election did hinge on these states.

There were only four states where the final results did not match the polls (Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) and the election swung on three of them. In three of the four states, the polling error was about four points or less, which would have been within the margin of error of most polls. The 7.2-point error in Wisconsin is the exception.

A post-mortem of 2016 polling error by the American Association for Public Opinion Research found several reasons for the erroneous polls. These include shifting preferences in the closing days of the campaign, underrepresentation of non-college graduates, and late-revealing Trump voters.

So could the same factors skew the 2020 election in key states? I’m skeptical for several reasons. First, Biden’s lead is larger than Clinton’s but in terms of national polling and the Electoral College. Biden leads Trump in a number of battleground states in which Trump led in 2016. That means that a larger polling error would be required to swing the election or an individual state than in 2016.

And pollsters aren’t using the same models that they used in 2016. It would be a mistake to assume that pollsters didn’t look at the 2016 results and try to learn from their mistakes. It is doubtful that pollsters will repeat the same errors they made last time, but correcting those mistakes might lead to new errors. It is just as likely that Joe Biden will outperform this year’s polls, which are trying to correct for undercounting Trump voters last time, as it is that they will err against Trump again. The AAPOR report found “no consistent partisan favoritism in recent U.S. polling.”

Finally, there were far more undecided voters in 2016 than today. Donald Trump was a relatively unknown quantity and many people assumed that he could become more serious and presidential if he won the elections. Today, voters know and dislike Trump. Fifty-six percent of voters believe that Trump does not deserve re-election. This is slightly higher than the 52 percent who said last year that they would not support Trump. In states where Biden leads by more than 50 percent, it is unlikely that late-deciding voters will swing the election to Trump.

Donald Trump’s difficulty this year is illustrated by the fact that, even if he ran the table on every swing state where he is trailing by less than four points, he would still lose the election, as shown by the map below. The president would need to win at least one of the three Rust Belt states where Wisconsin-size polling errors are required.

We are unlikely to see a repeat of Trump’s surprise victory this year. Joe Biden holds a larger lead that would require a bigger error to change results at a time when pollsters are very keen to overcome their mistakes from 2016. At the same time, most voters have made up their minds about the election years ago.

Barring another Comey letter that upends the race at the last moment, there seems little chance of a last-minute Biden collapse. With almost half of the electorate having already cast ballots in early voting, there is a diminishing chance that even an October surprise of YUGE proportions could remake the race.

Originally published on The First TV

Monday, October 26, 2020

Here’s how the Electoral College is shaping up with a week to go

 We are a week away from Election Day and the debates are over. There is little time left for the race to swing and few opportunities for candidates to change the current trends. With that in mind, let’s take another deep dive into the Electoral College to see how the presidential race is shaping up.

Looking at the national polls, we see that Joe Biden retains a healthy lead over Donald Trump. Currently, Biden has a nine-point lead in the FiveThirtyEight average. Biden’s lead narrowed slightly over the past two weeks, coinciding with the breaking of the Hunter Biden laptop story, but now Biden seems to be surging again. Even with the alleged corruption story at the forefront of the news, Trump never led in the polling average and Biden now averages 51 percent support.

But the real race is in the swing states, so let’s look at them individually. For these numbers, I’m primarily relying on FiveThirtyEight but I’m also looking at the Real Clear Politics polling average.

  • Arizona – Biden leads by three points
    Biden – 49
    Trump – 46
  • Colorado – Biden is up by 13 points
    Biden – 53
    Trump – 40
  • Florida – Biden leads by about two points
    Biden – 49
    Trump – 47
  • Georgia – Biden leads by less than one point
    Biden – 47.6
    Trump – 47.1
  • Iowa – Biden leads by one point
    Biden – 47
    Trump – 46
  • Michigan – Biden leads by eight points
    Biden – 51
    Trump – 43
  • Minnesota – Biden leads by eight points
    Biden – 51
    Trump – 43
  • North Carolina – Biden leads by about two points
    Biden – 49
    Trump – 47
  • Ohio – Trump leads by one to two points
    Biden – 47
    Trump – 48
  • Pennsylvania – Biden leads by five points
    Biden – 50
    Trump – 45
  • Texas – Tie per FiveThirtyEight but Trump leads by two per RCP
    Biden – 48
    Trump – 48
  • Wisconsin – Biden leads by six points
    Biden – 51
    Trump – 45

What we are presented with is a picture of a near-sweep of the swing states by Joe Biden. Even worse for Donald Trump, as I’ve noted in the past, is that several red states (Georgia, Iowa, and Texas) have slipped into battleground status. Still worse, Biden holds narrow leads in two of these states.

It is also worth pointing out that Biden is now polling at 50 percent or above in five of the battleground states (Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). Three of these are the states where Donald Trump’s surprise victories in 2016 propelled him to the presidency. Pollsters have paid more attention to these states this year, however, and Democratic margins are much greater than they were in the last cycle with one exception.

In Wisconsin, Biden’s six-point lead is similar to Hillary Clinton’s lead in 2016. That year, Hillary’s 6.5-point polling lead turned into a 0.7-point Trump victory, a swing of 7.2 points. Such a swing is possible this year but unlikely since more pollsters are surveying Wisconsin and have taken the 2016 failure to sample enough non-college-educated white voters into account.

In the other two decisive states from 2016, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Biden’s lead is much greater than Hillary’s. In Michigan, Hillary led by 3.4 points while she held a 1.9-point lead in Pennsylvania. This year, Biden leads by eight and five points respectively.

If we put everything together and plug it into the Electoral College map, we find Biden in landslide territory. Giving Biden credit for every state where he is leading, he would win the Electoral College by a 355-183 margin. If Texas and Iowa fall into the Biden column, the outcome could be as lopsided as 411-127.

Statistically, it is unlikely that Biden would win every toss-up state where he leads, however. On a good night, Republicans might hold Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. Anything else would be a very long shot. This scenario still leaves Biden the victor by a 284-254 margin.

Time and opportunity for Donald Trump to shift the course of the race are slipping away. At this point, FiveThirtyEight gives Joe Biden a 92 percent of winning the Electoral College (compared to 72 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016).

Of course, this does not mean that Donald Trump cannot win, but the odds against him are much longer than in 2016. Could the polls be wrong again? Will the race abruptly tighten as it did in 2016? I’ll look at the chances of such a swing next time.

Originally published on The First TV

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Why the herd immunity strategy is a bad idea

 Arecurring argument during the pandemic has been that the United States should adopt a strategy of pursuing herd immunity rather than attempting to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus. I have frequently been told that, sooner or later, everyone is going to catch COVID-19 so we might as well do it as quickly as possible and get it over with. Proponents of herd immunity argue that Sweden’s hands-off strategy has been more successful than countries that have conducted “lockdowns.” Earlier this month, the strategy got a boost as Trump Administration officials met with a group of doctors who advocate herd immunity. The problem is that much of the hype around the strategy is misleading.

The idea around herd immunity is essentially that, if enough people catch COVID-19, survive the disease, and develop antibodies, then the virus will be unable to spread to uninfected hosts. With nowhere to go, the pandemic will fizzle out.

As you might expect, there are a number of problems with achieving herd immunity. The most obvious difficulty is that, if you can catch COVID-19 more than once, herd immunity will be impossible to achieve. Already, there is evidence that Coronavirus antibodies do not confer permanent protection since there are several reports of people becoming reinfected with COVID-19. At least one report has been confirmed. The flip side is that subsequent infections might not be as dangerous as the initial illness. At this point, we just don’t know for sure but betting on only one dangerous infection per person is a risky proposition.

An additional problem is that, even if herd immunity is possible, no one knows how much of the population would have to be infected to reach that threshold. The Journal of the American Medical Association notes that herd immunity typically requires immunity of 70 to 90 percent of the population. There is some dispute about this, however. A University of Nottingham study in June theorized that herd immunity levels could be a low as 43 to 60 percent under the right conditions, which would include low levels of social activity.

Getting to 60 to 90 percent immunity will present a problem as well. Because many Coronavirus cases are mild or asymptomatic, we don’t know how widespread COVID-19 already has been in the US since we don’t know how many cases have gone undetected. A September study published in Nature estimated that the actual number of infections is “3 to 20 times higher than the number of confirmed cases.” That is an extremely high level of uncertainty.

What we do know is that 8.69 million Americans have tested positive for the virus. We also know that the death rate based on confirmed cases is 2.58 percent. The math for this is simple: 225,000 known COVID deaths divided by 8.69 million confirmed cases.

If we take the middle ground and assume that infections are 10 times higher than the number of confirmed cases, that means that about 87 million Americans have already had COVID-19. Assuming that herd immunity requires a 70 percent infection rate, the low end of the JAMA estimate, the US population of 330 million would require about 231 million infections. Under this scenario, we are only a little more than a third of the way to herd immunity.

If we are a third of the way to herd immunity, we can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to estimate that the total US death toll would be about three times the current death toll. That would mean that we could expect about 675,000 deaths.

Granted, there are reports that the death rate is falling as doctors get better at treating COVID patients. However, that could change if the hospitalization rate increases as the disease spikes yet again. In recent days, the new case count has climbed above summer levels for much of the country. As cases surge, hospitals in hard-hit areas of the country are once again reaching full capacity. This could negatively affect the level of care that patients receive and lead to more deaths.

The declining death rate might also have been due to the fact that the vast majority of Coronavirus cases have been associated with younger Americans, who are at lower risk for the virus. If the virus spreads to older and more vulnerable demographics, which would be required to achieve herd immunity, the death rate could increase once again.

Vulnerable Americans present a serious problem for advocates of herd immunity. Thus far, many Americans who are older or have pre-existing conditions have been protected by shelter orders, social distancing, and masks. I have an aunt in an assisted living home who has been mostly confined to her room since March 15. The lockdown policy in her home has been successful at preventing an outbreak among the seniors living there.

However, under a herd immunity policy, my aunt and millions of other vulnerable Americans would have no immunity, even if the population as a whole was relatively protected. If someone introduced the virus to her assisted living home, it would rampage like wildfire through the population in a way that was no different from how the disease spread through New York and New Jersey nursing homes last spring.

That’s the most serious problem. Herd immunity does not confer immunity on individuals. What herd immunity theoretically does is to quench the pandemic by giving the virus nowhere to spread. Even under herd immunity, if the virus infects a vulnerable individual, there is a high probability that they will die.

Further, herd immunity proponents tend to ignore the fact that Coronavirus can have negative outcomes that don’t result in death. Many COVID survivors require long and expensive hospital stays. Even those who don’t go to the hospital may take weeks to recover. Survivors may also suffer long-term health damage that could lead to a shorter lifespan.

But didn’t the herd immunity approach work in Sweden? To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, it isn’t that the advocates of the Swedish model are ignorant, it’s that they know so much that isn’t so.

First, Sweden didn’t conduct the business-as-usual strategy that many claim. The Swedes didn’t shelter in place the way many other countries did, but they did embrace voluntary travel restrictions and social distancing. This strategy allowed Sweden to boast better statistics than the US, which largely abandoned social distancing over the summer, but worse than its Nordic neighbors.

Second, Sweden has been hit by its own autumn wave over the past few weeks. As Swedish Coronavirus cases have surged back to June levels, the government is beginning to embrace more traditional mitigation strategies such as restrictions on nightclubs.

The lesson here is that it is dangerous to claim victory for any particular strategy in the middle of the pandemic. Although different methods should be studied, the best choices will be apparent only in hindsight after the pandemic is over.

One lesson that is readily apparent at this stage is that allowing the virus to run rampant through the population is recipe for disaster. Attempts to achieve herd immunity by infecting a majority of the US population will lead to death tolls that most Americans consider unacceptable. There is a better way to achieve herd immunity, however.

Ultimately, the quickest and most efficient way to achieve herd immunity – without needlessly killing hundreds of thousands of Americans – will be to deploy a vaccine. A successful vaccine could confer immunity on a large share of the population in a short time with a minimal amount of deaths. A vaccine would also protect our seniors and other high-risk Americans rather than abandoning them to their fates or forcing them to stay under indefinite lockdown.

We all want to get back to normal, but the quickest way to do that is with a vaccine. Until then, we need to persevere with mitigations such as social distancing, handwashing, and masks. The pandemic has been a long and trying period in all of our lives, but the best way to achieve victory over the virus is to follow the advice given to British citizens by their government during World War II: Keep calm and carry on.

Originally published on The First TV