Despite Summer Timeline, Experts Now Believe Reaching Herd Immunity is Unlikely
People have vaccinated at record pace throughout the country, Americans are emerging increasingly from a long, devastating winter hibernation, into a hopefully “normal” summer with both caution and optimism.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of May 3rd 147.5 million people have recieved at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This includes 105.5 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated either by the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna two-dose vaccines or the single dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. Currently these companies have administered an average of 2.29 million doses daily, which is a 32 percent decrease from the high of 3.38 million reached on April 13. In more encouraging news, more than 1 in 2 adults have been inoculated with at least one dose of the vaccines and over 80% of those over 65 have, causing the mortality rates to plunge.
Early in the pandemic, when vaccines were merely a thought on the horizon, it became increasingly clear that reaching herd immunity was the only way to restore our sense of normalcy. Whether it was gaining immunity from natural infection or vaccination, the goal was for the virus to run out of people to circulate through. Herd immunity signifies the point at which enough Americans would have protection against the virus so the spread from person to person would remain unlikely, thereby keeping those who aren't immune safe. This concept of herd immunity became the ultimate solution to this crisis for many countries, including the U.S.
However, there is a widespread consensus amidst public health experts and scientists that we may never reach herd immunity- not in the near future and perhaps not ever. Rather, they believe that the coronavirus will become a manageable threat that will continue to spread through the country in the years to come.
How much smaller a threat the virus will become is uncertain, depending not only on how many people are vaccinated in the U.S and internationally but also on the evolution of the coronavirus over time. Over the last year it has been demonstrated that the virus is rapidly changing, forming new variants that spread extremely quickly. Additionally, with the vaccination distribution slowing, it seems very unlikely we will reach herd immunity threshold.
At first, the target for reaching this was approximately 60 to 70 percent of the population. Most experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, were confident that this would be possible once vaccines became widely available. However, once they were developed and distribution began to heighten through the winter and early spring, the estimates of the threshold also began to rise. The initial calculations were based on previous data and spread of the original strand. Currently, the variant first identified in Britain, known as B.1.1.7 is 60% more likely to be transmitted. So instead of the original prediction, 80 percent of the population will need to achieve herd immunity.
If scientists find that those with immunization can still transmit the virus or new more transmissible variants develop, then reaching herd immunity will prove even more difficult. Polls illustrate that 30 percent of the population still have some reluctance to being vaccinated for whatever reason. Although this number may decrease, it will probably not decline significantly enough. Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University says, “It is theoretically possible that we could get to about 90 percent vaccination coverage, but not super likely, I would say.”
“It is theoretically possible that we could get to about 90 percent vaccination coverage, but not super likely, I would say.”
The shift of indignation towards people’s outlook on getting vaccinated presents a challenge. Public health officials anticipated that their drive for herd immunity- by the summer, which no longer seems possible- would capture the attention and cooperation of the clear majority of Americans. Now, this goal seems somewhat far-fetched. Yet, experts still stress that vaccinations remain the most vital solution to this ravaging pandemic.
“That’s why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense. I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading advisor on COVID-19 to President Biden, expressed the new shift on the expert’s mindset and thinking: “People were getting confused and thinking you’re never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is.” He went on to say, “That’s why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense. I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”