E pluribus unum or survival of the fittest?

This column first appeared on FFRF’s FreethoughtNow.com blog website on Dec.6, 2021.

By Dr. Karen Heineman

E pluribus unum
Dr. Karen Heineman (Photo by Chris Line)

The world closed down while I was on spring break during my last year of law school. I left school never to come back. Initially the plan was to, hopefully, return to life as we knew it a month later. Having knowledge of infectious disease, I knew that a global pandemic would not be contained within a month; I hoped for one year. Two years later, we are facing yet another variant of the Covid-19 virus: the omicron.

To control the virus and end the pandemic, the Freedom From Religion Foundation advocates for vaccine mandates — sadly viewed by many as assaults on personal autonomy rather than a collective effort to fight a global infectious disease. The truth is, however, that a personal decision to avoid vaccination affects us all.

E Pluribus Unum” (from many [come] one) is our nation’s motto. It is also a phrase that captures the essence of herd health. As a veterinarian, I use the herd health principle. For vaccines to improve herd health, a critical number of the herd has to be vaccinated within a certain timeframe. The goal is to create a viral firewall. Once the virus runs out of bodies to infect, it cannot continue to spread. If the entire herd is not vaccinated, or not vaccinated in a timely fashion, the spread of the virus may be initially slowed, but the delay allows the virus to mutate to improve its ability to infect.

Once we were fortunate to have vaccines developed to fight Covid-19 and health care professionals started explaining the concept of herd health, I felt comfortable that the end to the pandemic was on the horizon.

The development of new variants of Covid-19 is used as evidence by some people that the vaccines are not working. The problem, however, is not with the vaccines, but with our resistance to investing in our herd health. Currently, the “pluribus” is not supporting the “unum.” We did not reach the necessary number of vaccinated bodies to set up a firewall. Instead, we have new variants and the pandemic continues.

Fortunately, most people infected with Covid-19 will recover and some never suffer any symptoms, but, with each new variant, we run the risk that these characteristics will change. Rather than taking advantage of the current state of the viral disease and protecting herd health with vaccination, we continue to play Russian roulette. When will the effects of the pandemic be severe enough, or personal enough, that a critical mass of citizens will be willing to invest in our country’s herd health? We already hold the ignominious record for the country with the most deaths due to Covid-19. And we have surpassed the death total for the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. The Greek alphabet only has 24 letters.

As a scientist, I am disheartened that we cannot improve upon our response to a pandemic in comparison to a century ago, because the science and technology behind the vaccines is truly amazing. We are creating more effective and safer vaccines, and we did so in record time for Covid-19. Rather than supporting these monumental efforts, people point to the novelty of the vaccines as a reason to distrust them or point to other diseases for which we don’t have vaccines, suggesting that there is some insidious motive behind creating the vaccines for this disease. The reality is that not all diseases are created equally; vaccination is not applicable to all diseases. We should embrace the fact that we can utilize vaccines for this disease. Vaccination certainly provides personal benefits, but, more importantly, it improves herd health and is an avenue to ending this pandemic. Let’s trust the amazing science and protect our herd.

Instead, not only have we not met our herd health goals, but we may set a record for the number of court cases arguing for personal exemptions from vaccine mandates. To be clear, there are medical reasons for exemptions because some diseases and medications alter the immune system’s response to vaccines. Herd health can still be achieved when a small number of people are exempted due to the likelihood that their health would be adversely affected. Vaccinating the remainder of the herd is even more important for these vulnerable individuals because they also face an increased likelihood of morbidity and mortality due to infectious disease. Once we start entertaining exemptions for personal liberty or religious freedom reasons, we quickly lose the ability to protect the herd. When did our national motto become “Survival of the Fittest”?

We have the technology. Trust the science. Get vaccinated to protect our herd. We will all benefit when this pandemic is contained. E pluribus unum.

Dr. Karen Heineman is FFRF’s Legal Fellow. She has been a practicing veterinarian in Wisconsin since 1992. She also graduated magna cum laude from Marquette University Law School in 2020.