A potentially dangerous document is currently making the rounds on social media and in the news. Called the “Great Barrington Declaration”, it is a relatively short statement from the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think-tank based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts released on October 4. In it the writers make a case for what they call, “Focused Protection”. Basically they say that we should let everyone live their lives normally; open up the economy completely while protecting those at greatest risk of dying from COVID-19.
It is a seductive and seemingly reasonable approach to dealing with the current situation. Its appearance now is timely given both the increased numbers that we are seeing as the second wave crashes in on us and the overwhelming sense of COVID-fatigue many of us are feeling.
If only it were possible — but it isn’t.
I won’t question the motives of the authors nor the supporting organization. It has supposedly been signed by many scientists but a fact checker has discovered that many do not have the credentials or scientific credibility for their support to mean anything. The statement itself does not cite a single scientific reference or paper to support it. Furthermore:
1) It has proven impossible to protect the vulnerable in the past and it still is. The elderly and anyone at an increased risk from infection with the virus that causes COVID-19, have family, friends and a real world around them. For most, if not all, it is entirely impossible for them to be completely protected.
2) No one can predict who will get very sick or die even among those at less risk. Less risk doesn’t mean no risk. A 19-year old died here in Quebec without any risk factors that we know of. Researchers at the Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston reported that of 3,222 people aged 18 to 35 admitted to hospitals in the United States in April and June: 21 per cent needed intensive care; 10 per cent needed to be put on a machine to breathe; and, 2.7 per cent died. This doesn’t take into consideration all those who missed work or school or those who suffered prolonged symptoms — the so called “long-haulers”.
3) Countries and communities who have tried this approach (for example, Sweden) have not preserved their economies nor have they been able to achieve “herd immunity” to protect their population.
There is unfortunately no evidence that I am aware of to support this declaration. The timing, however, could not have been worse. At the very moment when we really need to focus our efforts on doing what we know works — hand-washing, social distancing, and mask wearing — this declaration discourages and distracts.
Please don’t fall prey to false prophets as we travel the rough road ahead.
Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at McGill Medical School as well as an Attending Physician in the Emergency Department of the McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.