Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have collectively focused on that point in the future when so many people have been inoculated or have obtained natural immunity, normal life could resume and this painful period would dissolve into the mists of history.
But it seems that this magical moment in which the U.S. hits “herd immunity” and COVID-19 is stopped dead in its tracks isn’t likely to happen soon, if ever.
Top health experts now say that due to a combination of waning demand for vaccines, uneven vaccination levels across the country and the spread of more contagious strains, the U.S. may have to live with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. It's not terribly surprising news, given the politicization of the fight against the pandemic, but it's disappointing. And it should spur leaders in government, commerce and the community to do more to rekindle the public's interest in getting inoculated.
More than half of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose, and about 40% are fully vaccinated. But demand for both first and second shots is dropping and could hit a wall soon. Kids under 16 still aren't eligible for inoculation (although those between the ages of 12 and 15 may soon qualify), and somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of American adults are reluctant to get a shot at the moment.
We don't know how dangerous the vaccination gap may be. Science has not yet established the threshold level of immunity in the population that renders SARS-CoV-2 incapable of spreading. It could be as low as 60% or as high as 90%.
With so many Americans unwilling to put aside their irrational fears or mistrust of government and get a jab, it's hard to see the U.S. ever reaching a point where COVID-19 is as rare as bubonic plague. But while the U.S. may not be able to eliminate COVID-19, it can reduce the threat to manageable levels.
In fact, some places have already done that. Israel has inoculated only about 60% of its population, but with continued restrictions on activities, it is keeping new infections extremely low. California seems to be moving in that direction too, because of some of the highest vaccine acceptance rates of any state along with pandemic measures so strict they sparked a political revolt. California health officials reported the lowest per capita coronavirus case rate in the nation last week, and the state is on track for a full reopening next month.
But California isn't an island; it's only as safe as the rest of the world. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached a record level of new infections. Controlling the virus in the U.S. will require sustained and consistent pressure from every level of society to normalize vaccinations, from heads of state down to churches and community groups.
If COVID-19 is here for the long-term, then vaccinations will be the most important tool we have to reduce sickness and death. And how about using beer and doughnuts to get there? Some states, communities and business are taking the novel approach of offering free drinks, food, gift cards and cash to nudge younger people into vaccination centers. Why not? Such incentives probably won't appeal to those with an entrenched opposition to vaccines, but could win over procrastinators and those who foolishly believe COVID-19 is not a threat because of their youth or health.
Vaccine mandates in workplaces and private businesses can help too. The government doesn't require that people get vaccinated — and technically, it can't as long as the vaccines have only emergency use authorizations — but it can make it desirable to do so.
"Herd immunity" may be the gold standard for fighting dangerous infectious diseases, but it may not be in the cards for COVID-19. We need to roll up our sleeves and deal with it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.