Allen Hoover, an administrator at the Parochial Medical Center in the heart of the Amish community in Lancaster County’s New Holland Borough, said he believes as many as 9 in 10 households in the local Amish and Mennonite communities have had at least one family member contract the CCP virus, which causes COVID-19.
He said he believes this is an indicator that COVID-19 herd immunity has been achieved within the communities.
“So, you would think if COVID was as contagious as they say, it would go through like a tsunami; and it did,” Hoover said, reported The Associated Press.
At the peak of the outbreak, nearly 15 percent of the Parochial Medical Center’s daily patients were those who had tested positive for COVID-19, Hoover said.
Cases then dropped throughout the summer, with a slight uptick in the fall, he said. Now, the medical center hasn’t seen a visitor with COVID-19 symptoms in approximately six weeks, Hoover noted.
The Plain community in Lancaster County, where both approximately 40,525 Amish and 5,700 Mennonites live, represents a significant portion of the county’s population. Combined, it represents nearly 8 percent of the county’s 545,000 residents, according to estimates from Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. The Parochial Medical Center has 33,000 active patients.
Herd immunity occurs when a large enough portion of the population acquires immunity from an infectious disease—either naturally from prior infection or temporarily through vaccination—that it no longer spreads widely.
Although the World Health Organization (WHO) in October 2020 quietly changed the concept of herd immunity to only include acquired immunity from vaccination, two months later, it added naturally acquired immunity from a previous infection back into its definition of herd immunity, and stressed that the health organization “supports achieving ‘herd immunity’ through vaccination.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Amish and Mennonite communities in Lancaster county canceled church services as per stay-at-home orders. But by April 2020, services had resumed, where they shared communion cups and greeted each other with holy kisses.
“It was bad here in the spring; one patient right after another,” said Pam Cooper, a physician’s assistant at the medical center.
Some public health officials and epidemiologists have voiced concern, however, that a misplaced perception of herd immunity in a population that makes up 8 percent of Lancaster County may compromise the effort to turn the tide on the pandemic.
“Herd immunity is only true at a given point in time,” said Eric Lofgren, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Washington State University. “It’s not a switch that once it gets thrown, you’re good. It’ll wear off.”
“You can have a long period where you think everything is OK but you have this whole population that’s susceptible,” said David Lo, professor of biomedical sciences and senior associate dean of research at the University of California–Riverside.
“All it takes is one person who’s contagious to give you this sudden outbreak.”
Hoover agreed with the epidemiologists. He added that while some in the Plain community may no longer feel a need to follow the COVID-19 public health directives due to their perception that COVID-19 cases have reduced, he still believes people need to pay attention to preventing any spread of the virus.
“We should be careful that we’re not the cause of it spreading,” Hoover said.
Since the start of the pandemic, Lancaster County has recorded 974 COVID-19 deaths and 47,430 confirmed cases as of March 29 from those who have agreed to testing. Of the close to 1,000 deaths, only 42 were of individuals under 60 years of age. Close to 50 percent of CCP virus victims died in nursing homes, 44 percent at a hospital, and around 6 percent at home.
Experts still don’t know what percentage of the population needs to be immune to achieve herd immunity. However, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top medical adviser to President Joe Biden, has estimated that at least 70 percent of Americans need COVID-19 vaccines before herd immunity will be reached.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told The Hill last week that achieving herd immunity will depend on whether people who are hesitant to receive the vaccine for COVID-19 can be convinced by “trustworthy voices” to get the vaccine.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.