Herd Immunity to COVID-19 is Still a Long Way Off: How Vaccines Can Get Us There

Herd Immunity to COVID-19

If 2020 was the year that COVID-19 disrupted life as we know it, 2021 promises to be the year that vaccines start to bring things back to normal.

  • While the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is encouraging, a small percentage of Americans have been vaccinated so far.
  • Most models predict that a majority – 60 or 70 percent – of people in a population need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.
  • Herd immunity without vaccinations is possible, but it would cause millions of people to die as well as overwhelm the healthcare system.
  • The path to normalcy will be gradual, but positive results will start to be seen as more people are vaccinated.

 

But there’s still a long way to go. As of January, more than 17 million vaccinations have been given worldwide, with more than 6 million of those administered in the United States.

The U.S. figures represent less than 2 percent of the country’s population, so that begs the question of when we’ll start to round the corner.

Ask any expert in infectious disease and they’ll tell you that halting the spread of disease comes down to one big factor: herd immunity.

“Herd immunity works because so many people ‘in the herd’ are immune to a disease that they act like a buffer for those in the same community that aren’t immune and protect them,” explained Dr. Shelley Facente, an infectious disease epidemiologist and founder of Facente Consulting, a public health consulting firm dedicated to under-resourced communities.

“For it to work, you really need a lot of immune people,” she told Healthforcast. “Twenty or 30 percent of people in a community being immune isn’t enough to protect those who are vulnerable. Given what we know about how easily COVID-19 spreads, most scientists estimate that between 60 and 70 percent of the entire community would have to be immune before we’d have herd immunity.”

Even without a vaccine, COVID-19 would run its course and herd immunity would be achieved through mass infection.

But this would come at a deadly cost.

Dr. Casey Kelley, a physician who founded Case Integrative Health and has spoken at length about the virus, told Healthforcast that some groups have proposed simply letting the virus run its course.

“The problem with this idea is, of course, that the majority of the population would need to contract COVID-19,” she explained. “The strain on the health system would undoubtedly risk thousands, if not millions, of lives.”

This is why vaccines are important.

Kelley says that they’re meant to help the body develop antibodies that can attack the virus.

She said that this should confer some, or all, of the benefits of natural immunity without having to actually contract the virus.

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