Public health experts in the U.S. now believe that despite a massive scaling up of COVID-19 vaccinations, the coronavirus likely won’t be eradicated anytime soon—and ongoing vaccine hesitancy is a major factor.
Experts now believe to achieve herd immunity—or enough of the population being protected from the virus, either through vaccination or infections, that the virus dies out—around 80 percent of people will need to be vaccinated, the New York Times reported Monday. This is up from earlier estimates as low as 60 percent, because COVID-19 has proven capable of mutating into more transmissible variants.
But that’s 80 percent of the total population, not just adults, and none of the vaccines granted emergency authorization have been approved for children yet. And more worryingly, polls over the past few months have shown that anywhere from 20 percent to a quarter to nearly a third of Americans have said they won’t get the vaccine.
This makes it much more likely that the virus will continue to be a threat in the coming years, experts told the Times, though they hope it’ll be a much more controllable one.
Much of the reluctance to vaccines has been drawn along political lines, after the GOP spent much of the last year downplaying the virus. Despite pleas from prominent Republicans including former President Donald Trump, whose administration oversaw the approval and distribution of the first vaccines, as many as 35 percent of Republican men said in a recent Kaiser poll that they wouldn’t receive the vaccine.
As vaccinations have increased, Republican governors have ended most remaining COVID restrictions, some of them doing so while simultaneously denouncing “vaccine passports” that might help prevent superspreader events. And conservative politicians and media figures such as Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and Fox News host Tucker Carlson have gone as far as to criticize the effort to get people vaccinated itself.
“If you’ve gotten the vaccine, why is other peoples’ refusal to get the vaccine a problem for you?” Carlson said during a segment last week. “If the vaccine is so effective, why are the people who choose to get it mad at the people who choose not to get it?”
“Do people who’ve slimmed down from gastric bypass yell at fat people on the street?” added Carlson, who either doesn’t understand what an infectious disease is or pretended he doesn’t for the millions who watch his show every night. “You wouldn’t think so. It’s not really their business.”
Complicating matters for herd immunity efforts is the size of the U.S. and variations in infection rates and variants from state to state, and even within local communities.
“If the coverage is 95 percent in the United States as a whole, but 70 percent in some small town, the virus doesn’t care,” Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch told the New York Times. “It will make its way around the small town.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser and a prominent public face of the federal government’s effort to fight the coronavirus since January 2020, told the New York Times that people shouldn’t think about herd immunity as the only way to mitigate the virus.
“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 told the New York Times. “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,” Fauci said.
And infections have gone down in recent weeks, to numbers not seen since last October. As of Sunday, the average number of cases over the past week has dipped below 50,000, according to the New York Times—down from the peak of more than 300,000 cases on January 8 during the post-holiday surge.
On Sunday, Los Angeles County—by far the most populous in the nation—reported zero COVID deaths, with the caveat that there are reporting delays during the weekend. During the post-holiday surge, the county averaged as many as 241 deaths per day.
The progress comes as more than 246 million shots have been given and nearly a third of all U.S. adults have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But more recently vaccination rates have been slipping from a peak of more than 3 million doses given per day to around 2.4 million doses per day, according to the New York Times vaccine rollout database.
And while herd immunity might not be a reality anytime soon, or ever, experts still maintain vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and others. “The virus is unlikely to go away,” Emory University evolutionary biologist Rustom Antia told the Times. “But we want to do all we can to check that it’s likely to become a mild infection.”