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Some experts now believe herd immunity for COVID is going to be impossible. Here’s why

covid herd immunity impossible
Photo via Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Though herd immunity was heralded as a goal for the United States when COVID-19 vaccines were first introduced, that now seems unlikely, possibly even impossible, due to vaccine hesitancy in a sufficient percentage of the population.

Even though more than half of all adult Americans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine, public health experts project that the U.S. may not achieve the higher percentages of vaccines needed to attain herd immunity status. Yet, that doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made.

“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,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview with the New York Times, elaborating on why he’s moving on from using the term “herd immunity.”

“I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down,” he added.

The Times looked back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that once the coronavirus began to spread from nation to nation, “It became increasingly clear that the only way out of the pandemic would be for so many people to gain immunity—whether through natural infection or vaccination—that the virus would run out of people to infect. The concept of reaching herd immunity became the implicit goal in many countries, including the United States.”

The initial target for herd immunity was about 60-70% of the population, with many experts believing that threshold was attainable once vaccines were available.

Now, however, that threshold has been raised to at least an 80% tier, according to The Hill. That’s because of new strains of COVID-19, like the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom.

The Times warned, “If even more contagious variants develop, or if scientists find that immunized people can still transmit the virus, the calculation will have to be revised upward again.”

That article noted that about 30% of adult Americans appear unlikely to get the vaccine, one reason why some experts think herd immunity is now impossible. “It is theoretically possible that we could get to about 90% vaccination coverage, but not super likely, I would say,” said Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In an opinion piece Michael J. Stern wrote for USA Today, he cited Fauci’s earlier projection that if “75% to 80% of the population got vaccinated, we could reach herd immunity by the end of summer. And with herd immunity, we’d return to a measure of ‘normalcy,’ meaning indoor dining, movie theaters, and hugs.”

“But herd immunity is slipping away because a quarter of Americans are refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” he added.

“There is no eradication at this point, it’s off the table,” Stern noted, quoting Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, adding, “We as a society have rejected” herd immunity.

Stern, suggesting those who are vaccine hesitant be “shunned,” noted that 45% of white evangelicals, nearly 50% of Republicans, and 61% of white Republicans in Texas are either reluctant to get the vaccine or would refuse it outright.

Sources: New York Times, The Hill, USA Today


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