Not surprised but disappointed. That’s my reaction to the news that we probably won’t reach “herd immunity” for COVID-19 anytime soon. And that we may never reach it.
For much of the past year, experts were saying we could reach herd immunity, the stage where the virus stops actively spreading, when 70% or so of the population was vaccinated or immune from having had the infection. We hoped schools could return to normal by this fall, after a year and a half of disruptions.
As Shari Rudavsky writes in the Indy Star, herd immunity was the Holy Grail, the prize that would let life get back to routine. Now it seems to be out of reach. Health officials no longer promote the idea.
What happened? One factor was the rise of more contagious variants of the coronavirus that causes the disease. That meant more vaccinations would be needed to reach herd immunity. But another factor, and the one that’s truly disappointing, is that many Americans refuse to get vaccinated.
Drug companies and the government did a remarkable job of developing, testing and approving vaccines for emergency use in record time. States and local health departments scrambled to get shots into arms. People eagerly signed up to get vaccinated. Then the momentum seemed to hit a wall.
Today, only 34.2% of Indiana residents are fully vaccinated, and 40.7% have had at least one dose. That’s well below the national figures of 39.4% fully vaccinated and 49.5% with at least one dose.
Some people have legitimate reasons to hesitate; maybe they have serious health concerns, or they’ve had the disease and believe they have immunity. But some have swallowed the myths circulating online: that the vaccine is “experimental” and unsafe, that it was developed using aborted fetal tissue and, most bizarrely, that the shots are implanting microchips that will track people’s activities.
New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli, in a recent episode of The Daily, the Times podcast, says there’s also American exceptionalism at work: “Americans just don’t like to be told what to do.”
The argument that vaccine refusers often make goes something like this: “If you think the vaccine is safe, you can get it, and you will be protected. But I don’t trust it. If I’m wrong, and if I get sick, even if I die, that’s my problem and it doesn’t affect anyone else. So don’t tell me I should get vaccinated.”
Well, that’s wrong. Collectively, when people decide not to get vaccinated, it does affect others.
The fewer people get vaccinated, the more the virus will circulate. The more it circulates, the more likely it is that more contagious or harmful variants will develop. That’s a real problem for those who can’t be protected by the vaccines, including children and people with suppressed immune systems.
Currently, children 12 and older can get the Pfizer vaccine. Experts say a vaccine could be available for younger children by September or October. That could be a key to getting school back to normal, but it’s not clear how much things would change. Requiring the COVID-19 vaccine would be politically dicey for schools. Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards, told me that schools arguably couldn’t require it for students unless there’s an order from the governor.
That suggests students may still be wearing masks and keeping their distance from each other in the classroom and on the playground when school resumes in two months or so. Some families will keep their kids home and continue online learning because they doubt the safety of in-person school.
People are affected when Hoosiers refuse to get vaccinated, and students are affected the most.