Unequivocally aligning itself with public health experts who have spent months promoting common-sense methods of reducing coronavirus transmission, the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts released a statement Thursday denouncing an anti-science declaration which took its name earlier this month.
Officials in the town took issue with the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, which proposes the pursuit of herd immunity—or what it calls "focused protection"—by allowing Covid-19 to spread through the young and relatively healthy population. In a statement, the officials warn such an approach would undermine months of hard work in the town to promote social distancing and the wearing of face coverings through its public health campaign, "GBSafe."
"For months, the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts has strived to be a Covid-safe community. But this hard work is now challenged by the controversial 'Great Barrington Declaration.'"
—Great Barrington officials
"For months, the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts has strived to be a Covid-safe community," reads the statement posted to the town's official website. "But this hard work is now challenged by the controversial 'Great Barrington Declaration.'"
Town Manager Mark Pruhenski decried the declaration for creating "harmful misperceptions" about Great Barrington "just as we are doing all we can to protect residents, employees and visitors.”
"We are a Covid-safe community, we are not tossing off our masks," said Pruhenski.
The Declaration, unveiled in the town on Oct. 4 by three scientists, was developed by the American Institute for Economic Research, a think tank whose libertarian views are often at odds with the generally progressive leadership and population of Great Barrington.
The scientists hold prestigious appointments at University of Oxford, Harvard University, and Stanford Medical School, but National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins has warned that their views are "fringe" and "dangerous."
The declaration calls for officials to allow Covid-19 to spread through the young and relatively healthy population while the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions would be protected in an unspecified manner.
Young people, argue the scientists, who met with Trump administration officials last week, should go about their daily routines with no regard for mask-wearing, social distancing, or avoidance of large gatherings—simple steps which public health experts agree can significantly reduce the transmission of Covid-19.
A day before the town of Great Barrington took pains to distance itself from the declaration, a coalition of 17 public health organizations also condemned the scientists' proposal in a joint statement.
With 85 to 90% of the U.S. public still at risk for contracting Covid-19, "There is no evidence that we are even remotely close to herd immunity," wrote the groups, including the American Public Health Association, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, and the National Association of County and City Health Officials. "Herd immunity is achieved when the virus stops circulating because a large segment of the population has already been infected. Letting Americans get sick, rather than focusing on proven methods to prevent infections, could lead to hundreds of thousands of preventable illnesses and deaths."
While critics of public health measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus—including Dr. Scott Atlas, a top White House adviser on the pandemic who has no public health expertise—have pointed to Sweden's approach as one the U.S. should emulate, the organizations note that the country has the highest mortality rate in Scandinavia after failing to implement an early and robust economic shutdown.
"We have seen the failure of the herd immunity experiment in nations such as Sweden," the organizations wrote. "It is illogical to ignore public health and scientific evidence when so many lives are at stake."
Also on Wednesday, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) and the HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA) released a separate statement calling the Great Barrington Declaration "inappropriate, irresponsible, and ill-informed."
"We have seen the failure of the herd immunity experiment in nations such as Sweden. It is illogical to ignore public health and scientific evidence when so many lives are at stake."
—17 public health groups
"As an association of more than 12,000 frontline infectious diseases scientists, physicians, public health experts, and other health professionals, the Infectious Diseases Society of America and its HIV Medicine Association strongly denounce the 'declaration,' released without data or evidence, that states this crisis can be controlled in the absence of critical public health measures," wrote the groups.
"'Community immunity,' or 'herd immunity,' a goal of vaccination campaigns, should never come at the cost of planned exposure to infection of millions of additional people as well as the severe illness and preventable deaths of hundreds of thousands of people," the IDSA and HIVMA added.
With one of its proponents working at Oxford, the Great Barrington Declaration has raised alarm in the United Kingdom as well as the U.S. On Tuesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that the document is underpinned by two "emphatically false" claims.
"First it says that if enough people get Covid, we will reach herd immunity. This is not true. Many infectious diseases never reach herd immunity, like measles and malaria and AIDS and flu," said Hancock. "Herd immunity is a flawed goal without a vaccine, even if we could get to it—which we can't."
"The second central claim is that we can segregate the old and the vulnerable on our way to herd immunity," Hancock continued. "This is simply not possible...Whenever we've seen cases of young people rise sharply, we then see cases among the over-60s rise inevitably thereafter. And we are not the kind of country that abandons our vulnerable or just locks them up.
"The Great Barrington declaration is underpinned by two central claims, and both are emphatically false."
— talkRADIO (@talkRADIO) October 13, 2020
In Great Barrington, town officials made clear that they remain on the side of public health officials, not that of the authors of the declaration.
"Many town leaders believe herd immunity is a dangerous Covid-19 strategy: Achieving herd immunity levels could cost millions of lives, and this is unacceptable, particularly in a nation where far too many people live with risky, underlying health conditions," the officials said. "Please wear a mask."