Herd Immunity: New Variants, Vaccine Hesitancy May Make it Impossible To Reach

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More doctors and medical experts are now saying herd immunity, the perceived end-all to the pandemic, may not be attainable due to new variants and growing hesitancy from people unwilling to be vaccinated.

“Certainly, we can’t get there anytime soon if people don’t get the vaccine. If people aren’t getting vaccinated, we’re just not going to reach herd immunity, and that’s just really a fact that is widely accepted at this point,” said Dr. Abisola Olulade, MD, family medicine physician with Sharp Rees Steely.

Herd immunity is attained when a large portion of a population becomes immune to an infectious disease, essentially limiting the risk and spread of the disease.

Early in the pandemic many believed the target to reach herd immunity would be to vaccinate 60 to 70% of the population. With new variants, that number could now be closer to 80%, according to medical experts.

COVID-19 Vaccination in Your State and County

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports daily numbers on the percent of people fully vaccinated based on a person's county of residence.

Source: The The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Note: The CDC did not release any information for Texas, Hawaii, New Mexico and some counties.
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Among the reason doctors don’t believe that number can be attained is a persistent vaccine hesitancy.

“The vaccine supply is improving, but we’re dealing with this huge road block on the path to that, which is vaccine hesitancy. Vaccines in freezers don’t get us herd immunity. Vaccines in arms is what gets us herd immunity,” said Dr. Olulade.

The news is frustrating not only for doctors but for many people who made it a priority to get vaccinated.

“We’re being held back by people who don’t care and people that are self-centered. There’s something wrong with that. I don’t know what can be done, of course,” said James Metzger of Mission Valley.

“I think it’s a shame. Those people wouldn’t be as old as they are if their parents didn’t get them vaccinated with small pox, chicken pox and other things,” said Louise Garrett of Del Mar.

Dr. Olulade said the news is discouraging and it’s disappointing, but said it points to a need to improve the messaging from a public health perspective.

“There has to be equity not just in the vaccine distribution, but in the information about the vaccines, said Dr. Olulade. “The outreach needs to be much better, and we need to get the message out there that the vaccines save lives and that they are safe and that they are what will get us out of this pandemic.”

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