Health experts predict we will not reach herd immunity, what it means for the future with COVID-19

Updated: May. 5, 2021 at 1:19 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Herd immunity was the goal to end the COVID-19 pandemic, but as demand for the vaccine is dropping, public health experts now say it is unrealistic to assume we will reach that goal anytime soon.

“Public health experts and scientist believe herd immunity is not obtainable in the foreseeable future and possibly, not ever,” Novant Health Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. David Priest said. “I do agree with that in terms of herd immunity and whether we can get there. The optimist in me hopes that whoever can get the vaccine, will get the vaccine but I don’t think it’s going to happen at this stage.”

Public health experts have estimated about 75 to 85 percent of the population would need be vaccinated against COVID-19 to reach herd immunity and eradicate the virus. In North Carolina, about 33 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to NCDHHS data. About 32 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

In recent weeks, health officials have reported a drop in demand for the vaccine. For example, Mecklenburg County’s vaccination clinic at Bojangles Coliseum will be closed by the end of May, in part because of reduced traffic. Novant Health’s Dr. Priest says the hospital system is also preparing to reduce hours at clinics because of a lack of traffic.

If we do not reach herd immunity, Dr. Priest says we need to be prepared for COVID-19 to be in our communities in the future.

“What it probably means is, COVID is going to be around. It may be seasonal and may require booster shots every year. So, we will deal with it like we deal with other respiratory illnesses each year,” Dr. Priest explained.

Because some of the population is vaccinated, hospital systems may be able to manage the number of COVID-19 patients better, but the virus’ presence can still lead to devastating consequences.

“There will be situations where people will get COVID, who will die of COVID, who were not vaccinated but could have been protected,” Dr. Priest said. “That’s what’s heartbreaking. When those opportunities were there, and they didn’t take them.”

Right now, health officials believe the available vaccines provide some protection against COVID-19 variants. But without reaching herd immunity, it is possible a variant that can overcome treatments and vaccinations will emerge.

“The vaccines are working pretty well right now, but that strain could come and then we would be left with a mess,” Dr. Priest said.

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