Is herd immunity attainable? UW Health expert weighs in

Published: May. 3, 2021 at 12:12 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - We’ve come to know “herd immunity” as the end goal of mass vaccination. Now five months into 2021, some are beginning to question if achieving it is plausible.

“Herd immunity is really when you have a high enough percentage of the population who are immune to a particular infectious disease such that the unvaccinated people are protected as well. Meaning that in this case the virus has a dead end. It doesn’t have the ability to go on and continue propagating itself and so basically the infection rate dies out at that point,” said Dr. Matt Anderson, UW Health’s Senior Medical Director of Primary Care.

Anderson says there is no magic number, but that approximately 70-90% of the nation’s population would need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. As of Monday morning, more than 34% of Wisconsin’s population is fully vaccinated and more than 31% of the US population is fully vaccinated.

While Anderson said that is good progress, vaccination numbers are starting to dwindle. He said that means there is still a long way to go to reach herd immunity, if ever.

“What I really am hoping we’re going to be seeing as we continue to vaccinate first doses and get people in their second doses over the coming weeks is that we’re going to have lowering of the infectious spread of the community case numbers and counts and that we can see that and the positive feedback will continue forward with that,” explained Dr. Anderson.

Part of the lag can also be attributed to children not yet being eligible for the vaccine, considering they make up 20% of the nation’s population.

“We have to stay on top of what the data is showing about maintaining that immunity going forward as well, because if in the future state we don’t have herd immunity, we have more virus circulating than would be ideal,” said Dr. Anderson.

Dr. Anderson says even if herd immunity isn’t reached and COVID continues to circulate for years to come, vaccination is the key to drastically decreasing the amount of cases and the risk of serious illness or death from COVID.

“I think that people can look at that and say, well it’s not 100%. What if we don’t get to herd immunity? Is it worth it? It’s absolutely worth it, because it turns something that could be more of a hospitalization, risk of dying, risk of severe complications, long-haul symptoms and it turns that into perhaps more like your common cold if you were to get symptoms,” told Dr. Anderson.

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