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For critics of aggressive stay-at-home orders, the solution seems clear: Reopen the economy and enough people will eventually become infected by the novel coronavirus to achieve “herd immunity” even before a vaccine is available.

The idea is that eventually, a sufficient percentage of the population will have survived COVID-19 and become immune, which in turn protects the rest of the uninfected population by interrupting the spread of the virus.

But the disastrous situation unfolding at San Quentin state prison over the last two months has become the latest of several cautionary tales that show how any effort to achieve herd immunity before a vaccine is available would come with enormous costs in terms of illness and death.

San Quentin’s death toll from COVID-19 translates to a mortality rate of about 767 people dying out of every 100,000 persons.

If that same rate occurred across California, that would translate to a staggering 300,000 deaths statewide — many times larger than California’s cumulative death toll of more than 10,400. Nationally, that would be equivalent to 2.5 million deaths; the current cumulative U.S. death toll is more than 163,000.

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