COVID herd immunity slips out of reach

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If you’ve been holding out hope that the coronavirus pandemic would end when the United States reached herd immunity … I have some bad news for you. Thanks in large part to vaccine hesitancy and slowing rates of vaccination, scientists now say herd immunity is not attainable, and COVID-19 is likely to be a public health threat that we live with and try to manage for a generation or more.

And let’s be clear: There’s a ton of overlap between the “we don’t need no stinkin’ masks, we’re waiting for herd immunity” crowd and the vaccine-rejecting crowd. They’re certainly part of the same broad approach to the pandemic—total lack of personal responsibility in the guise of personal liberty—and the damage keeps accumulating.

Nearly half of Republicans still say they don’t want to be vaccinated, while parts of their party—like the Nevada Republican Party—are leveraging vaccine opposition for partisan gain. Republican officials across the country have downplayed the threat of the virus and refused to embrace public health guidelines, leading to nine out of the 10 states with the highest cases of COVID-19 by population being Republican-led, and Republican-controlled states also dominating the list of states with the lowest vaccination rates.

Anti-vaxxers continue to thrive on social media, often driven by profit motives. On top of all that, the U.S. continues to contend with serious inequities in vaccine accessibility, leading to a situation where, as ProPublica reported, “Counties with high levels of chronic illnesses or “comorbidities” had, on average, immunized 57% of their seniors by April 25, compared to 65% of seniors in counties with the lowest comorbidity risk.”

Add those things together and you get a situation where vaccination can give many people a strong level of protection and drive down overall rates of new COVID-19 cases, but herd immunity as it has been talked about over the past year—as the great hope for a return to normal—is not happening. Even if there are high levels of vaccination in many parts of the U.S., the virus will be able to find its way in to the places where there are not. And while prior COVID-19 infection confers some degree of protection from reinfection there are reasons to believe vaccination is more protective, so the view that if you let enough people get sick, eventually you’ll reach the gleaming horizon of herd immunity has significant problems.

”I think we’re going to be looking over our shoulders—or at least public health officials and infectious disease epidemiologists are going to be looking over their shoulders going: ‘All right, the variants out there—what are they doing? What are they capable of?” Columbia University epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman said to The New York Times. “Maybe the general public can go back to not worrying about it so much, but we will have to.”

The United States doesn’t stand alone, either. The situation in India continues to be horrific, reminding us both of how bad the worst can be and that the U.S. cannot expect to be an island of safety in a world where the pandemic continues to rage. 

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