The year 2020 has been one of the most challenging years for humankind as we respond and work to end the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout 2020, the outlook was bleak with little good news of an end in sight. However, in December, with the approval of the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines, there appears to be a ray of hope in addressing this worldwide menace.
The key to controlling the coronavirus is for our society to achieve herd immunity. What is herd immunity? Herd immunity occurs when the majority of a population has been exposed to a pathogen and develops antibodies to ward off infection. When this happens through vaccination, the vast majority of the population does not become ill when exposed to the pathogen present in the community, and those who lack immunity are more protected as the spread of disease from person to person is greatly reduced.
There are approximately 328 million people living in the United States. To achieve herd immunity, between 60 to 80% of the population would have to be exposed or, 226 million Americans. If this exposure occurs through a majority of the population contracting the virus this can lead to unacceptably high morbidity and mortality. If we assume the coronavirus has a death rate between 1.0 and 1.5, that would result in a loss of between 2.2 and 3.3 million lives. Vaccination allows exposure to a virus without contracting the underlying illness. If we were to vaccinate 226 million Americans we can develop herd immunity without the underlying mortality.
The federal government’s Operation Warp Speed Vaccination Plan sets a goal to vaccinate approximately 30 million people per month. If this is successfully carried out, we will come close to achieving this 226 million person target to reach herd immunity in seven months (July, 2021).
Currently it appears that one million vaccines are being administered per week across the United States. Admittedly, we are only in the beginning stages of distribution, but this number must increase dramatically in order to achieve herd immunity. At a rate of 1 million vaccines per week, it would take over 200 weeks or approximately 4 years to reach our herd immunity goal. That, from a public health and economic perspective, is unacceptable.
Vaccines have been key to addressing many viral threats to the human species throughout history – including smallpox, polio, tuberculosis, measles, and more. Numerous debilitating conditions have been controlled and in some cases eliminated because of the advent of vaccinations. In recent years, however, we have seen anti-vaccination sentiments spreading within sects of our population. For better or worse, there are families that believe vaccines can create more harm than the diseases that they prevent. Much of this view is based on disproven information that continues to be distributed as conspiracy theories on social media.
To address this shortfall it is extremely important to build public buy-in and trust for vaccinations. Recent polls have demonstrated that somewhere between 60-70% of the population are willing to receive a coronavirus vaccine. This number has improved over recent months, but still falls short of what is needed to achieve herd immunity.
To be successful in fighting this pandemic and achieving herd immunity, municipalities across all levels of government must embark on public education campaigns to highlight the importance and benefits of vaccinations particularly when it comes to the coronavirus. We must foster trust in science and medicine, while dispelling misinformation and myths. The campaign has to be multilingual and multicultural, and delivered through the use of all forms of multimedia.
One possible way this can be achieved is by interfacing with respected local cultural institutions to spread this message within the local community.
It is also important for local hospitals and healthcare systems to put infrastructure in place to allow for mass vaccinations. The barrier of cost must be removed. A national volunteer service corps should be employed to allow for rapid administration.
This effort has to become a top federal priority because it is an issue of national security and public health.
Links to vaccine polls:
William R. Spencer
Suffolk County Legislator
18th Legislative District