Experts rebuke Michigan Senate leader's 'herd immunity' comment

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — In response to a comment from Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, five public health experts said Monday a COVID-19 strategy based around "herd immunity" could lead to four times as many deaths linked to the virus as the state has already reported.

A letter from the experts to Shirkey, R-Clarklake, came two days after MLive published a story in which the Senate leader commented, "I’m also a big believer that there’s an element of herd immunity that needs to take place."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and Shirkey, a Republican from Clarklake, have clashed for months over Whitmer's restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19. The Senate leader has said his caucus won't support a mandate that people wear masks. Whitmer's office released the letter Monday from health experts to Shirkey.

"If 'herd immunity' were to begin after about 80% of the state’s population has been infected, as some believe, then 6.5 million more Michiganders would still need to contract COVID-19," the experts wrote. "At the current mortality rate, this would mean ​more than 30,000 additional deaths — more than four times the number of deaths to date."

Shirkey is "not a medical expert" and "is open to the research and expertise" of public health professionals, the Senate leader's spokeswoman Amber McCann said Monday.

"The Majority Leader believes the concept of herd immunity should be part of the discussion moving forward on policies regarding COVID in the state," McCann said in a statement.

As of Saturday, Michigan had reported 6,891 deaths linked to the virus.

The experts signing the letter were Dr. Joshua Sharfstein at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Dr. Thomas File, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America; Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Ashish Jha at the Brown University School of Public Health; and Dr. Carlos Del Rio at Emory University School of Medicine.

They asked Shirkey to "clarify" his remarks and the Michigan Senate to hold a hearing on the situation with COVID-19 featuring "recognized experts in public health and medicine."

The Senate leader's spokeswoman McCann said the Senate is expected "to have several hearings in the coming days and weeks where medical professionals and others can offer their perspective on best practices."

Sharfstein and Jha have previously advised Whitmer on her response to COVID-19.

Michigan has experienced increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks. Last week brought the most new coronavirus confirmations in the state since April.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines "community immunity" as a situation in which "a sufficient proportion of a population" is immune to an infectious disease, through vaccination or prior illness, to make its spread "from person to person unlikely."

The five experts who wrote to Shirkey said even if "herd immunity" were achieved, the coronavirus would still infect people, meaning there would be "ongoing risk."

"A much better alternative would be to control the spread of the coronavirus through policies based on evidence, followed by broad use of a safe and effective vaccine when available," they said. "We ask that you clarify your remarks about herd immunity to avoid leaving the impression that a leader of your stature is supporting greater spread of coronavirus as public policy."

Shirkey's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The controversy developed on the same day that the head of the World Health Organization warned against the idea that herd immunity might be a realistic strategy to stop the pandemic.

“Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a Monday briefing.

Some researchers have argued that allowing COVID-19 to spread in populations that are not obviously vulnerable will help build up herd immunity and is a more realistic way to stop the pandemic, instead of the restrictive lockdowns that have proved economically devastating.

“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak,” Tedros said.

The letter to Shirkey came Monday as the Legislature continues to work on bills to replace some of the executive orders that Whitmer had instituted to respond to the virus. An Oct. 2 Michigan Supreme Court ruling effectively halted the governor's ability to continue to issue unilateral orders to combat COVID-19.

Since the decision, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has issued its own orders on masks and capacity limits.

The Associated Press contributed