You can talk about “herd immunity” until the cows come home

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It was widely reported that Alabama‘s State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris predicted that Alabama could reach “herd immunity” during the summer. WFSA/12‘s Lydia Nusbaum wrote:

Harris said Alabama could reach herd immunity by the summer depending on several factors. It depends on whether the state has the same level of vaccination as April and whether different variants continue to spread.

But there was a “catch.” The state really didn’t know what percentage of the population would have to be fully vaccinated to arrive at herd immunity.

The University of Alabama Birmingham‘s Dr. Suzanne Judd was quoted by Lauren Walsh in a ABC33/40 News report. Walsh wrote that “Dr. Judd stressed vaccinations are still important. We do not know how long immunity lasts for those who have had COVID.” Furthermore Walsh reported that Dr. Judd said that “vaccinating children will be critical for Alabama to reach herd immunity.”

Walsh wrote:

“If we count the people who have never had a positive test but have some level of immunity, then we would have reached herd immunity somewhere around May or June,” Dr. Judd said. “And we probably have, just looking at the fact that the cases are decreasing the way they are. The problem with only using that model is that those people may have- their immunity may fade.”

The duration of immunity for those who have had a Covid-19 infection is uncertain. And there have been cases of re-infection, according to Dr. Harris.

CNN‘s Holly Yan reported that “young adults are now steering the course of this pandemic as the biggest spreaders of coronavirus.” Yan wrote that “36% of young adults under age 35 say they don’t plan on getting a Covid-19 vaccine.” Without the vaccination of young adults herd immunity was considered to be unlikely.

The Montgomery Advertiser‘s Melissa Brown wrote that Alabama‘s Governor Kay Ivy had announced that the state’s coronavirus pandemic public health order and state of emergency would expire on July 6, 2021.

At the same time Al.com‘s Ramsey Archibald reported that Alabama could lose its unused doses of Covid-19 vaccine because of new guidelines from the federal government. Unused COVID-19 vaccine doses would be moved away from states with low demand into other areas. Archibald wrote:

Alabama had the nation’s second lowest vaccination rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Less than 33 percent of Alabama’s population had gotten at least one dose of a vaccine.

The Hill‘s Alexandra Kelley reported that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributed increasing new infections to new Covid variants. The CDC had concluded that a “best-case scenario” for controlling Covid-19 would involve high rates of vaccination and “compliance with [nonpharmaceutical interventions].” Kelley wrote:

Speaking to CNBC, Peter Hotez, the co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said that the U.S. needs to have 75 to 80 percent of all Americans vaccinated to see pre-pandemic normalcy.

“We can vaccinate our way out of this epidemic if all the adults and adolescents get vaccinated by summer,” he said. 

The CDC‘s May 5, 2021 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) said:

The rapid rollout of vaccination is having a positive impact on the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and reported disease nationally during April has been on the lower end of the scenario projections to date. However, multiple jurisdictions have seen a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and others likely will if NPI adherence declines too rapidly. Increases in deaths and hospitalizations could be more moderate because of prioritization of vaccination groups at high risk for COVID-19 but are still expected, particularly in locations with pronounced increases in transmission earlier during the vaccine rollout. These modeled scenarios show that ongoing efforts to continue to increase vaccination coverage and maintain physical distancing, masking, isolation, and quarantine are warranted. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves and more data become available regarding factors affecting outbreak dynamics, future projections from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub can provide new and improved insights for public health response.

The idea that “herd immunity” would be possible under any conditions was disputed by many experts.

USAToday‘s Elizabeth Weise wrote an article “Is herd immunity to COVID-19 possible? Experts increasingly say no.” She reported:

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, doesn’t want to talk about herd immunity anymore.

“Rather than concentrating on an elusive number, let’s get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can,” he said at a White House briefing last week, a sentiment he’s since repeated.

What Fauci doesn’t explicitly state, but others do, is that with about a quarter of Americans saying they might not want to be immunized, herd immunity is simply not an attainable goal.   

“It’s theoretically possible but we as a society have rejected that,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. “There is no eradication at this point, it’s off the table. The only thing we can talk about is control.”

With COVID-19, where vaccines are effective but won’t last a lifetime, vaccine hesitancy makes that kind of widespread protection unlikely, experts say.

That means people who can’t get vaccinated or whose immune systems are dampened by medication or disease will remain vulnerable. There will probably always be enough unvaccinated people to allow COVID-19 to spread once it arrives in a community.

Because of political attitudes towards vaccination, Weise wrote, “America could end up looking like a patchwork quilt, with areas where COVID-19 infections are low and others where the virus continues to thrive. The dangers of contracting COVID-19 are considerable. Among unvaccinated people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, about 20% will end up with severe disease, 5% will end up in intensive care and between 1% to 2% will die, according to CDC data.”

US News & World Report‘s Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder wrote that “the growing number of Americans protected from COVID-19 has returned focus to the idea of ‘herd immunity’ – a term some experts want to cast aside.”

Smith-Schoenwalder said that the problem of “vaccine hesitancy” complicated matters. She wrote that the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Vaccine Monitor had said that the “public’s enthusiasm for getting the shot may have reached a plateau.” She reported:

With cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the decline and over 40% of adults fully vaccinated, attention has returned to herd immunity – a concept that some experts would like to cast aside.

Herd immunity – or the point when enough people are protected from the virus that it cannot find new hosts to infect – has been a “counterproductive” term that has been “taken out of context by people who don’t understand the ins and outs of disease,” says Theo Vos of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Many universities and colleges were mandating that their students have Covid vaccinations before they returned to campus. Andy Thomason  and Brian O’Leary in The Chronicle of Higher Education listed 228 schools that mandated student vaccinations.

Harvard University is among them. NBC/10‘s Kaitlin McKinley Becker reported:

Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow said in a message to the school community Wednesday that students should plan to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus for the fall semester — meaning that at least two weeks have passed since receiving the final dose.

In a joint message with Harvard’s provost, executive vice president and the health services executive director, Bacow said students are being required to get vaccinated against the virus in order to reach the high levels of vaccination needed to protect the school community as Harvard hopes to be able to offer a less restricted, robust on-campus experience for all students this fall.

Unfortunately many schools throughout the nation had no such plans. Florida‘s Governor Ron DeSantis even signed a bill banning the practice of requiring proof of inoculation to attend any school that received state funding. The Tampa Bay Time‘s Jeffrey S. Solochek wrote about how schools in the Sunshine State were coping with DeSantis’ actions.

Students at the University of Alabama, who constitute approximately 30,000 of T-Town‘s residents when the school is in session, as yet would not be required to be vaccinated. There were no final plans on Covid mitigation for August when the 2021 Fall semester at the university will begin. At the university’s spring athletic events, many sports fans were no longer wearing masks, although athletes remained masked when they were not on the field. It was planned that Bryant-Denny Stadium would be at full capacity when the 2021 football season resumed. As many as 100,000 fans could pour into T-Town, the vast majority of whom will be unmasked and not socially distanced. A sizable number of fans will likely not have been fully vaccinated. And that any kind of “herd immunity” would have been arrived at by the first game on September 11, 2021, is uncertain at best.

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