No, California Doesn’t Have “Herd Immunity” to COVID-19

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A few years ago…wait, sorry, hours? Days. I think it was a few weeks ago that a friend sent me an article headlined “New study investigates California’s possible herd immunity to COVID-19.” Before I go any further I’m going to say that California does NOT have herd immunity to COVID-19. Absolutely no. For a number of reasons. I’m putting that up front because in the beforetimes I recall that people are less likely to believe misinformation if you start with the actual facts before you discuss the misinformation. So before I go any further, I’m going to need you to tell me you understand that California does not have herd immunity to COVID-19 and the disease has not been here since the fall.

Just kidding, I can’t hear you. This is a video. It’s fine, we’re all going a little crazy in quarantine.

Anyway, this article got me very excited at first because the article, from local news station KSBW, stated that “Researchers at Stanford Medicine are working to find out what proportion of Californians have already had COVID-19. The team tested 3,200 people at three Bay Area locations on Saturday using an antibody test for COVID-19 and expect to release results in the coming weeks. The data could help to prove COVID-19 arrived undetected in California much earlier than previously thought.

““Something is going on that we haven’t quite found out yet,” said Victor Davis Hanson a senior fellow with Stanford’s Hoover Institute.

“Hanson said he thinks it is possible COVID-19 has been spreading among Californians since the fall when doctors reported an early flu season in the state. During that same time, California was welcoming as many as 8,000 Chinese nationals daily into our airports. Some of those visitors even arriving on direct flights from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

“”When you add it all up it would be naïve to think that California did not have some exposure,” said Hanson.”

My friend sent it to me because she got sick with a respiratory disease in December and then gave it to me, and I was a mess over Christmas. Maybe that was COVID-19! Maybe we already had it, and are now immune to it! What a huge stress relief that would be!

Because even though I’m relatively young and healthy with none of the common comorbidities of COVID-19, I have dreaded the idea of getting sick. Dreaded it. I was basically sick on and off from October through the end of January, getting something seemingly new every time I got stressed out or traveled. It sucked. And then COVID-19 hit and I thought, “Well, here we go again. BLARG.”

So I’ve had all these anxiety spikes that even my anti-anxiety meds have been having trouble dealing with, and anxiety leads to my immune system failing, and also to acid reflux which causes me to have a sore throat, and that leads to more anxiety, and…yeah, you get it. It’s been a rough time for my mental health.

I was so excited about the Stanford study that I emailed Dr. Seema Yasmin, a doctor at Stanford who has appeared on my live comedy show Quiz-o-Tron. She said she had only just heard of the study as well and would let me know if she heard they were looking for new subjects to test. I wasn’t optimistic about getting into any follow-up study but I was optimistic that maybe I had nothing to worry about when it came to actually getting sick.


But then I thought, oh, but it’s odd that this study could also easily be turned into a conservative Republican talking point. I’ve spent a lot of time — way, way too much time — reading up on how conservatives are able to justify their actions during a rapidly worsening situation, and I realized that California’s huge success at flattening the curve (particularly the Bay Area’s) is a really bad data point for them. While other states refused to shelter in place and saw insane numbers of people hospitalized and dying, our hospitals remain well-functioning and we’re just not seeing the death totals of those other states. Conservatives who insist that California overreacted are going to have a bad time when they compare, say, Michigan to California COVID-19 deaths.

Part of that is their ridiculous claim that COVID-19 is overly diagnosed, which I debunked last week. But I realized they can now also argue that California only saw a better result because we had herd immunity — we were exposed to the disease very early and built up that immunity. But hey, it doesn’t matter! The science is the science, right? You can’t argue against it just because it may support some future conservative talking point, right?

Only, it’s not science. I am blown away by how misleading that article was. Remember the first Stanford researcher the article quoted, Victor Davis Hanson? He had nothing to do with the study. At all. He’s with the conservative think tank the Hoover Institution, while the actual scientists who did the study told Slate “Our research does not suggest that the virus was here that early.” Despite that, the KSBW mentioned Hanson early on, said he was with Stanford which would obviously cause people to assume he was one of the Stanford researchers who performed the study, gave him space for several quotes that are blatantly incorrect, and only later mention the “the study’s co-lead Eran Bendavid,” which by saying co-lead obviously people will assume the other co-lead is Hanson, since he had so much attention for the bulk of the article.

What the study actually found was that many more people had antibodies for COVID-19 than expected — they tested 3,300 people and found that 1 in every 66 tested positive for antibodies, suggesting that they had had the disease whether they knew it or not.

That news alone has a lot of conservatives very excited, because it suggests that the mortality rate for COVID-19 isn’t as bad as we thought. I continue to be baffled at their focus on this, because while it’s important for scientists to figure out the mortality rate, all we normal people need to worry about is how many total people are being hospitalized and dying, stressing our hospitals and possible causing other deaths due to a lack of resources. Like, if there’s a disease that only kills 1 in a million people that might not seem very scary unless you have a 90% chance of getting it. Then that would mean 7 million people are going to die. Those are made-up numbers, by the way, not actual COVID-19 numbers! Just illustrating a point. People don’t naturally understand statistics and relative risk, so honestly you are better off just not worrying about whether COVID-19 has a mortality rate of .7, 1.7, or 6.7. Just worry about staying safe and healthy.

That said, this does not mean that COVID-19 is less deadly than scientists originally thought. It seems like a perfectly good study, but it hasn’t been peer-reviewed, they haven’t made all the data public so no one can check their work or replicate their results, and the biggest problem is that the antibody tests aren’t necessarily accurate. There’s a huge problem right now with getting enough tests for what the US needs, and that has led to the market flooding with frankly shitty tests with loads of false positives. 

I’m really glad this research is being done, regardless of those problems, provided they take those problems into account. The big issue here is with the media screwing up the reporting. And in the case of KSBW’s article, I have trouble believing that that amount of shadiness was an accident. For the life of me I cannot imagine being a reporter who gets word of this study and instead of writing a straightforward piece that quotes from an interview with the actual scientists involved, finding a Trump-supporting neo-conservative with ties to the same university with a PhD in CLASSICAL STUDIES instead of, you know, epidemiology, to talk for paragraphs about his own theory of how everyone in the Bay Area already got COVID-19 because of Chinese nationals invading our shores last autumn. Like, the more I think about it the angrier I get.

KSBW did edit their article, changing the headline from “New study investigates California’s possible herd immunity to COVID-19” to “New California antibody study could point to possible herd immunity to COVID-19,” which is still fucking wrong because the study had nothing to do with herd immunity, which you generally don’t get to enjoy unless 80 to 90% of people have antibodies, as opposed to less than 5%, fuck you very much. They also added the line, “Hanson is not affiliated with the study” after his first quote, but they still left in the other quotes. It’s nowhere near enough. The reporter, Caitlin Conrad, should honestly be fired. That’s not journalism. The only possible way to explain this article without assuming Conrad is actually a propaganda-spewing piece of trash would be to assume that she’s merely a moron who was fooled by some expertly crafted press release from Hanson or the Hoover Institution. It’s insane.

Anyway, the point is that it’s neither good news nor bad news. It’s not even news. It’s just scientists working on learning more, and the media should stop reporting on their research until we have a closer understanding of what is real and what is a statistical blip.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Presence of antibodies may not protect against reinfection, depending on the titer, so a simple qualitative test is fairly useless except to indicate prior exposure to the disease. It could be handy to know if asymptomatic = low titer but nobody knows this yet.

  2. Also I just checked, Australia had 1.4 million Chinese tourists last year, staying for an average 11 days, pro rata that’s about 3800/day, comparable to yours.

    Because of aggressive testing we know that even now our rate of community transmission is very low. You reckon we would miss something from November? I mean 3 cases from Ruby Princess turned into 100 within a fortnight.

    20 deaths from that btw, we got MOST of our cases from the US, we ought to sue the US govt for their incompetence in all this. Chinese, otoh, handled the outbreak in exemplary fashion as far as we are concerned. So Republicans can stick that up their ass along with their light sabers.

  3. I have seen reporters make a point of saying that some person that they quote wasn’t involved with the research that they are commenting on, if that is the case. I can recall noticing that many times over the last few years in the larger, reputable publications when they are writing about recent research developments. I think that some of the better news editors and publications have trained their reporters to be careful about this.

  4. Gotta love conservative guesswork, not educated guesses, murderous psychopathic guesswork!
    1 on 66 does not herd immunity make, hell, that couldn’t even manage to make a card game! 8 in ten, getting there, 8.5 in ten, we’re getting there, 9 inn 10, bingo!
    *If* the immune system “remembers” the virus and the antibody half-life isn’t extremely low. Indeed, there have been reports of possible viral reactivation in patients thought “cured”! Is it fading immunity, due to short half-life antibodies? Is it a mutation in the virus? Or is lasting immunity utterly impossible?
    Currently, science doesn’t have any adequate answers, not even close. We don’t know of lasting immunity is possible, the half-life of the antibodies (but, plasma transfusion from recovered patients does seem to be effective in some cases), why some patients became ill again after returning home, even what the actual CFR is, the actual R0 is, we’ve got more questions than answers.
    There are around 320 million people in the US, there have been 5,184,635 people tested for the virus. That’s a pitiful number to be basing reopening everything again! It’s quite literally playing Russian Roulette with a machine gun with our populace’s lives and our economy that conservatives are so concerned about.

    Don’t get me started on the economy, as if we listen to the GOP mouthpieces, we’ll go extinct if we keep the economy closed. Ignoring the fact that the economy was a shambles and shuttered from 1918 – 1920 by the influenza pandemic! I guess everyone died back then and the North American continent awaits resettlement or something.

    Oh, trust me when I tell you, I’d happily bet that you have no antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Due to a moment of intracranial flatulence, around 4 weeks ago I stopped off at the dollar store for eggs, margarine, coffee and milk. Went there to avoid the large supermarket that would’ve been packed.
    Ran into a half dozen healthcare workers in scrubs and wearing masks, which I wasn’t, three other patrons without masks and three store workers without masks.
    For the past two weeks, we started with body aches from hell and now have inflamed respiratory passages and my portable pulse oximeter has read a SPO2 concentration of 94 upon awakening in a panic (I don’t get panic attacks, but I get similar due to hypoxia (nearly suffocated wearing a chemical protective mask that I failed to properly check first before donning it) and my best SPO2 was 97. Normally, I come in at 98 – 99% SPO2, 94 is when we put patients on 15 liters per minute O2.

    So, who wants to sign my “KIck me hard” sign?

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