Say good-bye to "herd immunity"

Say hello to "manageable threat"

Here’s my May column for the @HollandSentinel which, for the second year in a row, has won a “general excellence” award from the Associated Press, its third such award in the last five years.

This morning I woke to the news that, even with half of the adult population in the U.S. now vaccinated (with at least one dose), the country is now unlikely to achieve what has been called “herd immunity.”

Daily vaccination rates are declining, and not because of a shortage of vaccines. Herd immunity—the point at which enough people become immune to the disease to make its spread unlikely—no longer seems to be the path back to normal, or whatever passes for normal in 2021.

One in four Americans say they don’t plan to get vaccinated, and about half of Republicans under 50 say much the same thing. Instead of disappearing, the expectation now is that the virus will instead become a manageable threat. It will continue to circulate through the population for years to come, still causing hospitalizations and deaths, though in much small numbers and mostly in older age groups.

For something like 15 months I followed the advice of public health professionals and stayed home, not going to church or any of the other activities which I had enjoyed pre-pandemic. Then, with the news late last year that not one, but several vaccines had been developed in record time, I was overjoyed and began to look forward to resuming something resembling my former life. Based on what I read, I was in awe of the development of the latest vaccines (and the breath-taking science behind them), knowing that other deadly diseases still do not have vaccines. (HIV is one example.)

My first response to all of this is not to understand: Why wouldn’t my friends and neighbors be as eager as I am to get the vaccine and knock this virus out once and for all? I remember going with my family to get a polio vaccine (mine came in a sugar cube) and noting how relieved my family was to get it. We once cut short a summer vacation to Lake Michigan, thinking that swimming was one way to get polio. I don’t recall any hesitation then, only joy and relief, which is what I felt once again when I received my coronavirus vaccine not long ago. And how I felt when I learned that my 94-year-old mother had received her second shot.

I even wrote my congressman, Bill Huizenga, and asked if he had been vaccinated and if he recommended the vaccination for everyone. Some weeks later I received a reply that made no mention of his own vaccination status, and instead argued against mandatory vaccinations and for personal freedoms—“the very foundation upon which America was built,” he wrote.

A week or so ago, the hugely popular podcast host Joe Rogan (more than 190 million downloads per month) told his listeners that they should skip the vaccine. “I think you should get vaccinated if you’re vulnerable,” he said, “but if you’re 21 years old, and you say to me, ‘Should I get vaccinated?’ I’ll go, ‘No.’”

To better understand his friends who don’t want the vaccine, a science and technology writer for the Atlantic Monthly decided to survey them. Mostly what he found was a lack of urgency about the disease, most calling the coronavirus “wildly overrated.” One wrote,

I don’t know why I should consider this disease more dangerous than driving a car, a risky thing I do every day without a moment’s worry. Liberals, Democrats, and public-health elites have been so wrong so often, we’d be better off doing the opposite of almost everything they say.

Moreover, according to the same writer,

I don’t need some novel pharmaceutical product to give me permission to do the things I’m already doing. This isn’t even an FDA-approved vaccine; it’s authorized for an emergency. Well, I don’t consider COVID-19 a personal emergency. So why would I sign up to be an early guinea pig for a therapy that I don’t need, whose long-term effects we don’t understand? I’d rather bet on my immune system than on Big Pharma.

So, I now know a few of the reasons people give for avoiding the vaccine, but I still don’t understand and maybe never will.

Also, viruses are unpredictable, and spread is affected by other issues, including what happens in the rest of the world. As of this week, less than two percent of the people in India have been fully vaccinated, and less than one percent in South America. Travel (as well as continued mutations within the virus) may upend all our efforts, allowing the pandemic to continue for a long time.

Even knowing all of this, I would still make the same decision and get the vaccine. I hope others get it too.