According to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, America has logged 6 million cases of COVID-19 – almost a quarter of the world’s total population. So far, approximately 183,000 Americans have lost their lives. Even with a vaccine, that number may continue to increase. The White House’s latest approach to tackle the virus is herd immunity, which is touted by the president’s new coronavirus advisor, Scott Atlas, a radiologist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution.
Andy Slavitt, former Acting Administrator of The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the Obama administration, talks with KCRW’s Warren Olney about herd immunity and whether a vaccine is the answer in the battle against COVID-19.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: What is herd immunity?
Andy Slavitt: “When enough people have the virus, it will stop spreading this rapidly. And in the context of a vaccine, herd immunity is exactly what we want. We want people to get herd immunity without people having to suffer.
The herd immunity that Scott Atlas talks about is quite different and is quite dangerous. It is not that herd immunity, but herd thinning, because what it suggests is that we ought to let the virus roam freely so that more people can get it. Along with this there is some sort of implied acceptable death rate.
People who advocate for herd immunity generally say we should protect the older people while we do this. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. As people have learned around the world, it is impossible to fully cocoon, and what you end up doing is exposing people who are hourly workers, essential workers, people in the Black and Brown community, older people.
This is essentially suggesting that if you're young, white, fit, live in a house with plenty of room to distance, you're not particularly worried about personally dying from COVID-19. So why should you be restricted from going out going to football games, being in large crowds, from doing the things that make you happy?
But the point is 80% of people who get COVID-19 get it from some place they don't know, which means that people who are infecting other people with COVID-19 don't know they're doing it. So do I just worry about myself, my individual liberty, my individual freedom? Or do I think about what responsibility I have to others?”
Could there be a vaccine produced even before the November election? And if there are different strains of the virus, does that mean there has to be a vaccine for every strain?
Andy Slavitt: “No, it doesn't, thankfully. The same ACE2 inhibitor that the virus binds to is the same one in all cases, so the vaccine should be able to work on multiple strains.
Now having said that, as we know from influenza vaccines, vaccines do not work universally. Different vaccines have different effectiveness levels in given years, but we should not expect that the coronavirus vaccine will work on 100% of people. It may work on 50% of people, it may work on 40% of people, and that's okay. But what it means is it's a piece of the puzzle, not a final answer. So understanding that should help us plan a little bit better for all the other tools we need.
The president talks so often about having vaccines very soon, and there's even been some predictions that by November, two days before the election, maybe we'll finally have a vaccine. But that would be without the testing that's required. So what does that mean, and would you take a vaccine that was developed and approved by November the first?
So a quick vaccine is a good thing, there's nobody that should be against that. A vaccine without a phase three trial is another matter. … Would I take the vaccine? [That] is entirely dependent on what the data there is. If somebody presented me without data, or said 1000 people took this, it would be very hard to imagine taking a vaccine like that. Now if I were a health care worker under dire circumstances going into battle, I might be convinced it was a gamble worth taking.
So what is being prepared for on November 1 are vaccines rolling off of the line and being distributed into communities — which will make at least a nice photo op before the election. And if we're ready by then and we have scientists around the country who say, ‘yes, this is ready to go,’ then that's terrific.
But if we don't, or if there’s been political meddling under pressure from the president, then he is gambling with a historic asset, which is trust in the vaccine.”
Warren Olney talks about misinformation in the run-up to the election, why athletes are becoming increasingly politically active, and whether their message resonates with African American men in November.
He hears from McKay Coppins, staff writer at the Atlantic and contributor to “The American Crisis;” and Todd Boyd, professor and chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at the University of Southern California and author of “Young, Black, Rich, and Famous.”
KCRW: You reported that in the final days of the 2016 race, Trump's team tried to suppress turnout among Black voters in Florida by slipping ads into their news feeds that Hillary Clinton thinks African Americans are super predators. Did that work, and are the Russians still involved in spreading misinformation?
McKay Coppins: “Political scientists debate just how much effect micro targeting worked on Facebook, but they will tell you that it's highly likely that the more money that goes into it, the more reach that it has. In 2016, Hillary Clinton did struggle to win Black voters in the same numbers that Barack Obama had. In 2020, we're seeing much more of the same strategy, both in terms of appealing to the Trump base, but also trying to — if not outright — suppress the Black vote. There are certainly efforts to do that, to disillusion them and make Black voters less likely to turn up to the polls.
We know Russian disinformation efforts were designed to stoke racial division. Russian trolls posing as Black Lives Matter protesters, trying to start fights among Democratic supporters — of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — and generally trying to create more chaos and division around the issue of race.
What's interesting is that in 2020, Facebook and Twitter have gotten much better at cracking down on foreign disinformation efforts. They have gone out of their way to find Russian and other foreign countries who are setting up fake accounts or bots, and to kick them off their platforms. But the problem is that they're running into domestic disinformation efforts based here in America. They are using the same tactics that Russians used and doing it better because they're based here. They know the internal politics and what will inflame and divide voters even more than Russians did.
The problems they run into are: What counts as disinformation versus political opinions, conspiracy theory versus a political view? Silicon Valley is struggling to figure out how to approach this.”
How important is the involvement of LeBron James and other professional athletes in the campaign?
Todd Boyd: “LeBron is central in these efforts and he has been visible back in 2016. From the standpoint of the NBA — its visibility and its popularity — when you have teams saying they're going to allow the arenas to be used for voting, it's really a very significant move. Its potential to influence people who may not otherwise be so invested in politics is something that I think we might see play out as we get closer and closer to election day.
When you talk about getting the attention of people who are interested in politics and also people who are basketball fans, you may have some casual interest, but people aren't paying attention to the cable channels and the news about politics every day. It may be a bit lofty, but it certainly helps to have someone as visible as LeBron James who contributes to these voting efforts, because it lands a popular figure and someone who's not always seen as political.
I imagine the other side sees him as quite political, but someone who's also a cultural icon. We've seen this in many different ways before with actors and musicians and other celebrities. LeBron is a unique celebrity and what he's doing is helpful. And the other people that he's influenced and will influence will be helpful. But it has to be regarded as part of a larger overall piece, as opposed to something that in and of itself has the ability to influence the vote directly.”
President Trump said the NBA has become like a political organization, and that’s not good for sports. Jared Kushner says that players are fortunate financially to be able to take the night off from work. Does this cut both ways?
McKay Coppins: President Trump has a well documented history in recent years of trying to use sports as kind of a culture war wedge issue. Several years ago, he singled out Colin Kaepernick (the NFL quarterback), who had started to kneel in protest of systemic and police brutality against Black people in America. That turned that into a major cultural issue.
At the time when I would talk to a Republican political strategists, [and] they would say, ‘Oh, this is a brilliant move by President Trump,’ ‘ He's so good at identifying these wedge issues where the majority of Americans are with him.’
Fast forward a few years and you're seeing a Black lives matter movement gain momentum in a way that it never had before, and Donald Trump pouring gasoline on the fire. It may have helped rile up his base, but it also helped to draw a lot of energy into the movement. A lot of people would say it may have backfired on them. Right now, you’re seeing President Trump and his campaign trying to turn the NBA into this kind of social, cultural wedge issue, and I'm not sure it'll resonate much outside of his base.
The key point Todd made, was that the NBA transcends politics. People who've been tuning into these playoff games are from across the ideological spectrum, across the country, across the political spectrum. Some of them are not into politics at all, some are very involved. But when you're tuning in you go to watch these games. And the players insisted before going into the playoff bubble that the programming included something about the movement that we're seeing unfold right now.
It's probably had an effect on a lot of people who are just tuning in, who may not have been thinking a lot about these issues. So Donald Trump is going to try to use these players as kind of political weapons. It's unclear to me how effective that will be because most people see these guys as great athletes and cultural icons and celebrities, and are not ready to have them turned into political boogeyman or villains.”