What Happens If We Don’t Reach Herd Immunity? One Health Expert Weighs In

Emergency physician and George Washington University health policy professor Dr. Leana Wen told CNN that addressing vaccine hesitancy is crucial to making a herd immunity deadline. 

While the US marked 32 percent vaccination rate among eligible American adults, reaching herd immunity by the fall is not guaranteed. 

“I am not sure that we are going to reach herd immunity,” Wen said. “The other scenario here is that we get a decline in the number of infections because of increasing vaccinations over the summer, that’s really good. But I also fear that people are going to get complacent. They’re going to see that things are returning to normal. They can go about doing things that… they couldn’t do before, regardless if they were vaccinated.” 

What Is Herd Immunity?

Herd immunity, as defined by the CDC, means that the enough people in a population have immunity to an infectious disease (either by vaccination or from having the virus before) so that the spread of the infectious disease slows down dramatically.

While millions have already had COVID-19, health experts and leaders across the country are pushing to get as many people vaccinated as possible, to reach the herd immunity threshold, which would mean about 80 percent of the population received their vaccines.

What Happens If We Don't Reach Herd Immunity by the Fall?

Dr. Wen worries people who are hesitant about getting the vaccine and don’t get it and we don’t reach herd immunity by the fall when people return indoors, and other respiratory illnesses spike. 

“What I really worry about is those people who were already on the fence, don’t get vaccinated this summer,” Wen said, running down a worst-case scenario. It’s possible that “we have a big resurgence [in the fall and winter], maybe we have variants coming in from other countries and we could start this process all over again.” This is why reaching herd immunity is so crucial. 

What Can We Do?

Understanding causes of hesitancy, like fear about the vaccine’s development, access, vaccine education, and more, is critical to getting more people vaccinated in the efforts of reaching herd immunity.  

Dr. Wen says some people haven’t gotten vaccinated yet because they don’t have the time between taking care of kids or elderly parents, working multiple jobs, and other obligations, getting people in this situation vaccinated may require the redistribution of doses to smaller facilities like churches and doctors’ offices to make it easier.

She also said people who’ve gotten vaccinated after overcoming hesitancy should be sharing their stories about what changed their minds. 

With some states easing restrictions and the weather changing, vaccine outreach to these groups and the hardest-hit communities is a top priority among lawmakers, health officials, and health advocates. 

Photos: Getty Images

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