The Amish may be the first to achieve herd immunity, experts say

A Pennsylvania Amish community may be showing signs of becoming the first cluster of people in the United States to attain herd immunity from COVID-19, according to a local health official.

A medical center executive in Lancaster County’s New Holland Borough, which is home to a large sects of the Amish and Mennonite population, calculated it is possible as much as 90 percent of the families have had at least one member of their households exposed to the pathogen.

“So, you would think if COVID was as contagious as they say, it would go through like a tsunami; and it did,” explained Allen Hoover, an administrator of the Parochial Medical Center, which serves communities of these types and covers 33,000 patients.

The Amish and Mennonite groups obeyed the stay-at-home lockdown orders at the start of the worldwide outbreak, even closing their schools and halting church services.

However by the latter half of April, they had reopened religious services, where they drank from the same communion cups and exchanged holy kisses, a traditional greeting in their faith.

Before long, the illness spread throughout the community. “It was bad here in the spring; one patient right after another,” remarked Pam Cooper, a physician’s assistant at the Parochial Medical Center.

Toward the end of April and beginning of May, the county’s positivity ratio for coronavirus tests was over 20 percent, the nonprofit Covid Act Now reported.

However, Hoover commented that it was not possible to report the full severity of the pandemic outbreak since he calculated that less than 10 percent of patients suffering from symptoms allowed doctors to test them.

The medical center was treating roughly a dozen cases of COVID-19 per day, or an average of 15 percent of the patients it serves each day, according to Hoover.

While infections dipped down through the summer, before spiking once again in the fall, Hoover noted that new cases are now sparse at best.

The center has not seen a patient with symptoms of the coronavirus infection in nearly six weeks, Hoover reported.

Nevertheless, some medical professionals still doubt that the sizable infection rate has led to significant immunity in the religious community.

Eric Lofgren, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Washington State University, asserted that herd immunity is conceivable but only in rare cases.

“It would be the first general population in the United States that’s done it,” Lofgren acknowledged.

Although specialists have indicated that as much as 90 percent of people would need to have contracted the virus to reach herd immunity, others say that the actual tipping point is still unknown.

“The key is that there is not necessarily a magic number,” stressed David Dowdy, a professor in the epidemiology department at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Being exposed to an infection previously may also not be sufficient to guard against a new version of the virus, some experts have advised.

“Herd immunity is only true at a given point in time,’ warned Lofgren. “It’s not a switch that once it gets thrown, you’re good. It’ll wear off.”

“The only true herd immunity that we can bring as a community is for people to be vaccinated,” advised Alice Yoder, executive director of Community Health at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.

Altogether, the different sects of these religious groups make up about eight percent of the 545,000 people currently living in Lancaster County. Herd immunity takes effect when enough members of the population have protection against a disease to stop a virus from finding new hosts, subsequently protecting the larger population. Immunity can occur either through recovering after being exposed to an infection or by vaccination.

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