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EDITORIAL: The prevalence of immunity may be much higher than previous research suggests

More than a dozen states, including Nevada, have hit the brakes on their reopenings because of a significant increase in coronavirus cases. On Tuesday, Gov. Steve Sisolak said Nevada would remain in Phase Two of its recovery plan through July, as average daily case counts have nearly quadrupled since the end of May.

“If statewide trends do not improve or get worse,” the governor said via Twitter, “I will not hesitate to take any action necessary to protect the public, including reinstituting previous restrictions. I am currently reviewing all the data to determine potential next steps.”

But before the governor shifts into reverse, he should at least give his mask directive and heightened warnings about social distancing time to bear fruit. It’s also worth repeating that, despite the jump in cases — which cannot be entirely attributed to additional testing — deaths continue to trend downward across the country.

“The number of daily deaths from coronavirus has been falling consistently since peaking in late April,” the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact reported last week. “In fact, even as infections have risen since early June, deaths have not.” That’s true even accounting for the lag between new cases and deaths.

Part of this could be attributed to improved treatments, medical experts say. It’s also possible that the “initial wave of infections disproportionately reached more patients with weaker immune systems,” PolitiFact posits, “including those in nursing homes, or more vulnerable Americans who hadn’t yet taken up effective social distancing. By contrast, more recent waves of infections may be reaching younger and healthier people who are better able to survive an infection.”

The latter point may offer heartening news during these dreary times. “The shifting age distribution of COVID-19 infections … suggests that herd immunity might be achieved without a big increase in deaths,” Reason’s Jacob Sullum noted last week. His colleague, Ronald Bailey, reported Wednesday on two studies out of Europe — one in Germany, the other in Sweden — that indicate the “prevalence of immunity to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 may be much higher than previous research suggests.”

Among the interesting findings in the Swedish study: “Roughly 30 per cent of the blood donors who’d given blood in May 2020 had COVID-19-specific T cells,” one of the researchers reported, “a figure that’s much higher than previous antibody tests have shown.”

If the studies stand up, it would mean that this pandemic represents a lethal danger to far fewer people than previously thought.

That’s not to ignore the tragedy of 130,000 deaths or to excuse Nevadans who eschew common-sense precautions regarding disease transmission, of course. But the information should be highly relevant as Gov. Steve Sisolak and his peers ponder their next steps.

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