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Will We Ever Achieve Herd Immunity Now That Vaccine Rates Are Declining?

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Herd immunity is achieved when a high enough proportion of the population is vaccinated against the disease. Health officials say we may not reach it, but the disease may continue in a milder form.

COVID-19 vaccination rates have slowed in Ohio and across the country, and combined with new mutations of the virus circulating, health officials fear herd immunity may be out of reach.

Cuyahoga County’s vaccination rate is 45%, which is a long way from the more than 70% thought to give us herd immunity.

Cuyahoga County Health Commissioner Terry Allan said even if we never vaccinate more than 70% of the population, we may be able to learn to live with COVID-19.

“It’s not going to go away completely. It’s going to be around, and hopefully it’s going to continue to become more mild as it evolves and as it mutates,” he said.

We may reach a level of herd immunity with 50 to 60% of the population vaccinated, because some people will also have natural immunity from being exposed, Allan said.

The priority has always been on vaccinating the most vulnerable, which will bring hospitalizations and death rates down.

“We have been focusing in Ohio from the beginning, and I think appropriately so, on trying to reach those most at risk for complications, hospitalizations, and death,” he said.

If more people get vaccinated, we might have a chance of eradicating this coronavirus, like the United States has been able to do with vaccine-preventable viruses like smallpox and polio, Allan said.

But that’s unlikely because of how many people are opting out of getting the vaccine, and how contagious the variants are becoming, he said.

“We don’t see this as coming to a screeching halt,” he said. “What we see is that we expect to see cases continue at lower numbers, but they’ll continue to occur.”

Vaccinations may go up soon as the Pfizer vaccine is opened up to 12-15-year-olds. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected in the next week to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for use in anyone 12 years of age or older. 

But there’s no easy answer to when the end of this pandemic will be, said Dr. Daniel Rhoads, section head of microbiology at the Cleveland Clinic.

“All throughout the COVID era, we’ve been looking for yes and no answers, or this is right, this is wrong, this is good, this is bad,” he said. “But in biology, oftentimes there’s a lot of gray areas.”

He said it’s hard to draw the line to determine the exact number for herd immunity because the number is not exact. But he doesn’t think we’re going to eliminate COVID-19.

“I think it’s here to stay,” he said, “Can enough people become immune that it’s not on the evening news every night? I think so, but when that will happen, I think it really depends on the public’s willingness to get vaccinated.”

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Lisa Ryan