Staff Columnist

Reynolds herds us through a longer, worsening pandemic

FILE - This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019
FILE - This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). (CDC via AP, File)

With Iowa topping the COVID-19 charts this week in per capita cases, and an election looming, we’re going to hear more about how our failure is actually a clever strategy.

We’ve seen reports in the Washington Post and elsewhere this week on how the concept of “herd immunity” is gaining favor with President Donald Trump. And what gains favor with Trump today too often becomes bad pandemic policy in Iowa tomorrow.

Those pushing herd immunity want us to stop masking and distancing and go about our business. Loads of people then catch the coronavirus with the idea that the more people get it, the more immunity we build up. We’d protect vulnerable people, of course, as we go back to enjoying buffets.

Herd immunity also is being recognized more and more by conservative readers defending Gov. Kim Reynolds’ bungled pandemic response in Iowa, America’s COVID-19 hot spot. With herd immunity, spread is good. Spread is right. Spread is patriotic.

Sounds great. But I bounced the idea off Dr. Patricia Winokur, executive dean of the medical school and a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Iowa, and she’s less bullish on herd immunity.

For one thing, to build immunity, lots of people would have to get the virus, possibly 70 percent of the population. Right now only about 2 percent has been infected, or maybe as much as 4 percent with unreported cases.

A lot of infected people would get sick, straining and probably overwhelming hospitals and ICU units. And many more people would die.


“That’s exactly what would happen,” said Winokur, who points out that a vaccine is a better route to building immunity.

I get the impression from herd fans they’re convinced they’ll be in the herd that gets the virus and lives to tell about it. But they may end up in a herd that becomes seriously ill, or that develops ongoing chronic conditions still not completely understood. They may be in an unexpected herd, with serious and even fatal cases that don’t fit the demographic pattern. People of color have been disproportionately affected, but as we saw with packing plants, herd fans tend to care more about profits than people. We also don’t know enough about how immunity works with this virus.

But herd backers contend the effects of public health measures are worse. All the sheltering, distancing and canceling have taken a psychological toll and spawned harmful side effects. Kids not in school are falling behind and in some cases have faced abuse.

I agree those are real problems. But hearing this from some of the same people who backed large tax cuts instead of fully funding our mental health system and who fought to untether home schooling room from oversight in Iowa should give us pause. This is political cover for lousy leadership.

They’re a curious herd. They demanded reopening too soon in the spring amid predictions it would lead to a virus resurgence. They call the people who rightly predicted this “hysterical.” Now they demand we adopt more of their bad ideas because freedom. Meanwhile, Reynolds, heeding their reopening demands, has herded us into a prolonged pandemic and a virus surge.

Had we listened to health experts, I might be sitting in Kinnick Stadium this Saturday watching the Hawks. But hey, Iowa still is No. 1. Not in football, but in failure.

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