Health experts to Shirkey: COVID herd immunity would kill 30K in Michigan

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has suggested that Michiganders must learn to live with COVID-19. (Bridge file photo)

The former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and four other health experts on Monday called on Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey to clarify comments that appear to ask Michigan to learn to live with COVID-19 through herd immunity.

“If ‘herd immunity’ were to begin after about 80 percent of the state’s population has been infected, as some believe, then 6.5 million more MIchiganders would still need to contract COVID-19,” according to the letter signed by Thomas Frieden, formerly of the CDC, Dr. Thomas File, Jr., president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and others.


“At the current mortality rate, this would mean more than 30,000 additional deaths.”

The letter followed recent remarks from Shirkey, R-Clarklake, to Bridge Michigan, MLive and other news outlets speaking out about what he called “oppressive mandates” to contain the coronavirus.

MLive quoted him as saying “nobody should be misled here or of the opinion that you can keep it from spreading — it’s going to spread, so we just do the best we can.” He told Bridge it’s time to “live with the virus.”

“He sounded like he was giving up against the virus,” letter author Joshua Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told Bridge.

“We don’t believe in giving up. We believe it’s still possible to fight back.”

He authored the letter after Michigan’s health director, Robert Gordon, forwarded him an MLive article about Shirkey’s comments. 

Sharfstein said he’s consulted “two or three times” with Whitmer and Michigan officials about the virus. The letter was also signed by Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and Dr.  Carlos Del Rio, a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine.

“Herd immunity as a concept sounds good as long as it’s other people getting sick,” Sharfstein told Bridge.

The letter asks Shirkey to clarify his remarks “to avoid leaving the impression that a leader of your stature is supporting greater spread of coronavirus as public policy.” It also asked for a public hearing to explore the science behind the virus and the ability to curb its spread.

Shirkey  “believes the concept of herd immunity should be part of the discussion moving forward on policies regarding COVID in the state,” his spokesperson, Amber McCann, told Bridge on Monday.

“He is not a medical expert and therefore is open to the research and expertise of professionals who are willing to weigh in on the topic,” McCann said. “I do expect the Senate to have several hearings in the coming days and weeks where medical professionals and others can offer their perspective on best practices."

The letter comes amid uncertainty in Michigan, following a recent state Supreme Court ruling that struck down dozens of executive orders from Whitmer, including some that shut businesses and required masks in public.

In recent weeks, cases and deaths have climbed as older residents are increasingly getting the virus, as hospitalizations have jumped from about 500 statewide to 900 in the past three weeks.

Sen. Curt VanderWall, a Ludington Republican who chairs the Committee on Health Policy and Human Services, said lawmakers are “digging in and trying to learn” about the science.  

He echoed Shirkey’s comments on herd immunity and criticized what he called “rash statements” from experts who claim the approach will lead to more deaths. 

“Show me where in the world those figures come from,” Vanderwall told Bridge.

Proponents of the herd immunity approach point to Sweden, which has discouraged the use of masks and encouraged residents to live as normal. The nation’s death rate of about 58 per 100,000 residents is less than the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy, but above that of France and Germany.

While the authors of the letter to Shirkey cited 80 percent for herd immunity, other experts have said it could be achieved with about 40 percent of the population.

Michigan has about 150,000 confirmed and suspected cases, less than 2 percent of the population.

VanderWall said Monday he expects his Committee on Health Policy and Human Services to “get more involved” in the pandemic response after the Supreme Court ruling. He noted the panel last week heard testimony on a House bill that would provide legal immunity for health care providers and facilities that perform pandemic-related services, similar to protections Whitmer had put in place through executive orders.

While Shirkey has already written off the possibility of a mask mandate passing the Senate, VanderWall told Bridge he would not rule out a hearing on “the benefits and the flaws” of the policy, which Gordon has continued through public health orders.

But VanderWall made clear he does not personally think a mask mandate “benefits” Michigan citizens. 

“We have a constitution,” and government mandates “take citizens’ rights away,” he said. 

Sen. Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids, ranking Democrat on the health committee, called Shirkey’s recent comments on COVID-19 “incredibly irresponsible.”

She said Republican leaders who “set the agenda” have not signaled plans to hold the kind of wide-ranging COVID response policy hearings requested by the public health experts. 

Hearings would be “a really important step to take in terms of developing our policy and our response if indeed the Legislature’s going to take an active role in that,” she said. 

 — Bridge reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this article.

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Mon, 10/12/2020 - 4:09pm

Shirkey is a typical pro-lifer. He's all for protecting the unborn, but isn't bothered in the least by 30,000 avoidable adult deaths.

SB Smith
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 12:53pm

Please show us the documentation that the "herd immunity" approach will kill 30K adults. It just isn't there! It is irresponsible to make such statements without proof. Herd Immunity is working well in the Scandinavian countries and it would work well also in Michigan. Witmer & Gordon are bent on destroying our small town businesses at a rate many towns will never recover. The coming depression will be catastrophic unless we take steps to make sure all get the vaccines and start the process working toward herd immunity. Witmer will soon (if not already) be selling her cottage on Birch Lake outside of Elk Rapids for she won't be able to find a restaurant or retail store still in business when she wants to next visit that area.

Wed, 10/14/2020 - 8:41am

I find it ironic that a country with: universal healthcare, strong labor unions, guaranteed sick leave and vacation for even part-time employees, a progressive tax code (which means the rich get taxed more), a robust welfare system, free higher education, and that has been led by a Social Democratic Party since 2014 is being praised by the right.

I wholeheartedly agree, we SHOULD be more like Sweden. Lets start with universal healthcare.

Buck Roberts
Wed, 10/14/2020 - 9:56pm

Before you can have and afford universal health care, you need to have people genuinely caring about each other, respecting them and respecting the rule of law. That includes Ds caring about Rs and not insulting them at seemingly every opportunity, and not labeling them as haters for the sole reason that they have a different view.

Charlie Day
Fri, 10/16/2020 - 6:34pm

mw, it is ok to compare coronavirus response between two countries, but comparing government policies between these two countries is invalid. These are two different countries with two different kinds of people - We have the constitution, they do not, etc - What works in sweden as far as taxation, government, etc will not work in the USA. Well, it won't work unless you are willing to kill more than half of the population, keeping the ones that are most likely to accept swedish policies.
Way to think like a liberal, though. Closed mind, small mind, blind idealist.

Mon, 10/12/2020 - 7:23pm

Any attempt at heard immunity will kill more older people, minorities, and high risk citizens than healthy citizens. Look at the statistics from Sweden. The herd immunity policy that the Michigan republicans are seeking shows a clear pattern of discrimination against minorities, those with disabilities, and people over 60 years old. Look at what happened in Florida. Florida’s governor had the same plan for herd immunity.

Mon, 10/12/2020 - 9:04pm

Aw, screw science!

Mon, 10/12/2020 - 10:56pm

How will all the first responders and health care workers be protected if Republicans succeed in revoking all covid 19 mitigation measures. The hospitals
will fill up and more health care workers will die. Does Shirkey care about anyone?

Wed, 10/14/2020 - 8:43am

He cares about businesses and helping out his wealthy donors who own those businesses.

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 12:26am

Herd immunity could begin at 15-20-25 percent, thanks to natural immunity to previous coronaviruses.

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 11:23am

With Michigan already at 2%, increasing the infection rate intentionally by an order of magnitude to theoretically reach 'herd immunity' could lead to 60,000 deaths and and 1.5 million infected, with a significant % having long-haul or permanent health impacts (heart and lung damage, blood clots, brain fog, etc.). This is not a solution.

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 2:18pm

Any source for this claim? Also, what about the cases we are seeing now where people are getting reinfected?

This is why the actual experts say herd immunity is a poor strategy that will lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 8:37am

Why are Republican Senators so focused on ending mask mandates? Mask mandates are cheap, they’re not nearly as intrusive as lockdowns, they allow for greater degrees of commerce and education. In other words, they’re a key to opening up the economy.

Yet instead of talking about the issues with the governor’s orders on the economy (and there certainly are issues) they obsess over masks. Hell, they require legislature staff to wear masks but won’t require legislators to do so (they say they can’t tell legislators what to wear even though they have a dress code so most certainly DO tell legislators what they can wear).

They seem obsessed with appeasing the crazy portion of their base. Which probably explains why they don’t mind putative kidnappers carrying long guns into the Senate gallery.

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 12:15pm

It's about the money to be made when people are out spending period and also about the power to be gained by heard mentality

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 2:33pm

The buck stops with the national party leader, Trump. He has spent the last 7 months downplaying the virus and downplaying the effectiveness of masks. In June Trump even told a WSJ reporter that he believed many Americans were wearing a mask to express their disapproval of him and not wearing them as a protective measure.
Even earlier this month during the debate, he made fun of Biden for wearing a mask and for running a campaign that follows social distancing protocols.

But don't worry, I'm sure if his followers get sick, they can also get helicoptered to a world-class hospital to be surrounded by a team of doctors who can administer experimental treatments that are not publicly available.

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 9:17am

Step to the head of the line, Senator...

Ken Mitton, PhD
Tue, 10/13/2020 - 9:50am

As a research scientist in human genetic eye disease, a molecular biologist who has tested CIVID19 pcr in our lab, and the director of a small serum COVID19 antibody study in Oakland county and area volunteers right now, I find the herd immunity concept both wrong and avoidable.

The current US rate of death from COVID19 as a percent of those who get COVID19 shows that herd immunity nationwide would mean 8 Million persons would die in the United States.
So who wants to sacrifice their grandparents, aunts, uncles, Mom, Dad, brother, sisters? I know, as do many other biomedical scientists, that the failure to take the virus seriously and the failure to ramp up and fund early PCR testing, the failure to fund and add in thousands of molecular biology lab abilities to use our realtime PCR machines for local testing (in universities), are just a few of the failed responses that make us the nation with the most deaths. Not only has our country failed to organize a central pandemic response program, governors who have tried to respond in their states have been fought and resisted to block their ability to respond. Some, not all, conservative politicians now want to pretend their lack of response in 2020 is not a cause of our high death count now but that failure has indeed increased illness and deaths. New Zealand and even China are back to near normal and New Zealand began dealing with COVID19 the same time we had to. I still , right now, cannot get what used to be common n95 masks from biomedical suppliers. I demonstrated one type of COVID19 pcr test on YouTube back in March 2020 to show the only thing preventing massive testing is a political will to face reality. Let 30,000 or more Michiganders die is the best he can offer? Professor Mitton grades that with an F, failed.
There is no hiding the truth. The truth is that every politician who failed to listen to the real advice of public health doctors and viral disease physicians and scientists, who were speaking loud and clear in early 2020, have failed the people they serve. You, your families and my own. This country put Armstrong on the Moon and has the know how and resources to be more like New Zealand. I call bull, on herd immunity. Its just an excuse to pretend we have not failed already and missed several months of opportunities to save thousands of our loved ones.

Geoffrey Owen
Tue, 10/13/2020 - 10:19am

Herd Mentality is Murder in the first degree. Shirkey held a Zoom meeting the day after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against Governor Whitmer's Emergency Powers and that is conspiracy. The Wolverine Weenies wanted to kidnap the governor but Shirkey doesn't care who dies.

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 11:06am

Michigan, with all the fury of Governor Whitmer's coronavirus controls, has had about 151,396 COVID-19 cases which caused 7,225 deaths. Sweden, with its hands off approach, has had about 100,654 COVID-19 cases which caused 5,899 deaths. Sweden's population is about 350,000 more than Michigan's, and is distributed much the same as Michigan's.

This suggests that the experts' prediction of 30,000 dead has no foundation in actual science. It also lays bare the ineffectiveness of Governor Whitmer's furious coronavirus measures.

Wed, 10/14/2020 - 8:56am

Yes we should be more like Sweden. We can start with universal healthcare, followed by mandatory paid sick leave benefits for all workers (even part-time employees). So I totally agree with you that Sweden's socialist policies are helping them weather this storm better than us.

Hey, did you know if a family member is diagnosed with COVID in Sweden, there is a mandatory lockdown for all other members of the household? Don't worry though, employers are barred from firing people for COVID and the Swedish government will pay the salaries of all other working members of the household to stay home and quarantine for 2 weeks.

Wed, 10/14/2020 - 5:40pm

Your knowledge of Sweden’s welfare is well out of date. Swedish health care is funded by local taxes collected by county councils and is being transitioned to fee for service: VardVal. Actual benefits vary markedly from county to county. The Northern European countries broke themselves under the old systems and had to lean out their welfare states in the 1990s.

The real difference between Sweden and Michigan is citizens’ trust in government, Swedish citizens hold their government bureaucrats in much higher regard.

You're Dumb
Fri, 10/16/2020 - 3:38pm

The Detroit metro area has a population of over 4 million.

Stockholm has a population of 1.6 million. The population distribution is not similar at all.

Also, let's be real. Sweden has responsible citizens observing government safety standards for living through the pandemic. Michigan has a death cult calling for everyone to get sick.

The experts' prediction of 30,000 dead has a foundation in science because the experts are actual scientists.

Perhaps you should pay attention to other statistics, like the decrease in deaths since the beginning of the Pandemic after Governor Whitmer's orders were put into effect? You probably wouldn't want to do that, because it would make your weak and fact less argument here seem like the crudely crafted propaganda it is.

Looking forward to seeing Trump lose in November, and Whitmer elected to a second term when she's on the ballot again.

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 11:56am

Sweden is not a good example for "herd immunity." Only part of Sweden chose not to shut down. Sweden in general volunteerily works mostly from home, social distances, uses masks, wash their hands... They also tend to live alone. They act like mature, responsible grown-ups, unlike many Americans. If we want to look to another country for guidance, Japan is doing great. However, when people there are told to do something for the benefit of others as well as themselves, they do it. Not self-centered Americans. Makes me sad and angry with our govt and with the covidiots who refuse to care about anyone but themselves.

Wed, 10/14/2020 - 9:02am

Both Sweden and Japan have universal healthcare and more protections and benefits for all employees, including part-time, temporary, and seasonal workers. If we want to act more like Sweden or Japan in response to a pandemic, maybe this is where we should start.

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 12:12pm

It doesn't make sense to consider her immunity. That was a theoretical concept that applied when we have a known vaccination and we need x percent of the population vaccinated to control a disease. we don't even know if herd immunity works with covid. Since it is a virus there's probably no such thing as herd immunity so 30,000 + people would die for nothing

Earl Newman
Tue, 10/13/2020 - 12:35pm

Why would anyone take this person’s opinion seriously on a matter of public health?

Hester prynne
Tue, 10/13/2020 - 1:06pm

Infect him and his fellow bastards repubs youre messing with the wrong state the vast majority have common sense something you and your scummy repubs dont have. We will fight getting the virus and a big f... You, ill laugh as your ass gets it. Swamp scum get out of our state.

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 3:23pm

It is time for Shirley and the like to become front line workers in hospitals. Surely they would be qualified to clean rooms, change sheets, etc. High rush hospital, couple of months. Let's see how that works.

Marlene lott
Tue, 10/13/2020 - 7:19pm

Seems to me given the chronic pre-existing health issues causing the greatest complications from COVID, that we would be addressing those very causes. Smoking, drinking, poor diet and lack of exercise. Not really sure why other than it's politically incorrect to call out Americans over our lifestyle choices.

Thu, 10/15/2020 - 9:44am

Instead of affirming a concern for the health and wellbeing of Michigan, Shirkey shrugged off responsibility in lieu of greed and the brazen pursuit of political gain. Pure grandstanding, self-aggrandizing, indolent, power-hungry cowards who have neglected their duty

Sat, 10/17/2020 - 3:02pm

Are you going to be the first in line to receive the deadly virus and start the “herd immunity” . I think not.
Mask up and stop this nonsense. It is NOT about politics. It is about health.
So darn sick of this.
71 recent of Michigan residents approved of our governors handling of the virus.
But the republicans were not having a Democrat who was successful at her job.
The CDC says mask save lives. The medical professionals are screaming mask up. The scientist have proven it.
And still the republicans think they know better.