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Can ‘Herd Immunity’ Help Curb COVID-19?

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San Andreas, CA — Clarke Broadcasting reached out to local health officials about some of the COVID-19 research underway, including a hypothesis that “herd immunity” was helping keep California’s COVID-19 cases from looking more like New York’s.

Stanford Medicine researchers, who are investigating many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, are trying to determine what proportion of Californians may have already had it.

University officials share that teams in the past few days have administered thousands of finger-prick blood-draw antibody tests with results, expected in the coming weeks that could help prove the novel coronavirus arrived undetected in the state much earlier than previously thought.

Chinese medical officials originally indicated the deadly outbreak began in early January before backpedaling the date first to December, then possibly mid-November. Researchers are hypothesizing that COVID-19 first started spreading in California last fall during what otherwise appeared to be an early flu season and that it could be one explanation for the state’s lower than expected case numbers, especially since it is the top U.S. travel destination for Chinese tourists.

If Californians were exposed earlier than the rest of the country to COVID-19, researchers say it is possible there was a chance to build up some “herd immunity” to the disease but test results are needed to prove it.

Researchers say the testing could be a beneficial tool in helping hasten recovery for communities in which more people are found to have antibodies against the disease and could safely get back to work.

Calaveras County Health Officer Dr. Dean Kelaita readily agrees to the value of antibody testing, which is still being developed to administer on a widespread basis. As for “herd immunity,” he has questions.

Why Are So Many Still Getting Sick?

“What we know about COVID-19 was that it was reported in December of 2019, hence the name,” Kelaita muses. “The China outbreak was the first we heard and we think it originated in China in December 2019, likely due to animals in wet markets congregating closely with humans…then the virus mutated and the outbreak took off.”

However, since the novel coronavirus is a new strain — why it’s going through us like wildfire, Kelaita ponders whether folks who think they might have gotten it last fall might have just been suffering through the early flu season onset or other illnesses that share some of the same symptoms.

As to the hypothesis of “herd immunity” already being evident in the region, Kelaita acknowledges the virus may have been around in a low amounts for a longer time that officials really know.

“The way a herd immunity works is let’s say there are 100 people and 99 exposed have immunity — then all the people around them are going to protect that person — the one who is not immune is surrounded by those who are,” the explains. But he asks, if folks sick last fall were actually battling COVID-19, wouldn’t we have already been seeing more effects of a building immunity?

While testing for COVID-19 is still problematic due to materials shortages, antibody testing for immunity to the virus he says is valuable because it can determine previous exposure and potential susceptibility, similar to blood tests already available to determine if a person has been exposed to measles, mumps and rubella. Too, these kinds of tests are also generally inexpensive and easy to administer.

While different kinds of COVID-19 responses are being developed such as various forms of testing, monitoring models that track such things as movement and fever within populations, vaccinations and other cures are months, even years from being ready. In the meantime, Dr. Kelaita is certain about one thing.

“Right now all we have are the social distancing measures…and it is working,” he says empathically. “Don’t get complacent about it. California’s numbers are improving and that is evidence of early adoption of social distancing works.”