HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – Since last March, we have been living through the coronavirus pandemic. It’s touched every aspect of our lives and we’re eager for things to get back to normal. But what will it take to get there?
“The faster we can get the bulk of the population vaccinated, the faster we’ll be able to tamp down the spread of this disease,” said Dr. Danny Avula, who is Virginia’s vaccine coordinator.
Local and state health experts agree: the key to getting back to normal is through herd immunity. That’s when enough people have protection from the virus that it can’t rapidly spread, because there aren’t people to infect. However, it’s going to take time and people rolling up their sleeves.
Avula said, “The basic concept of herd immunity is that you get enough of the population, the herd, and in this case, Virginians, you get enough Virginians vaccinated or protected from COVID-19 so that they don’t spread it to other people.”
There are two ways to reach herd immunity.
“If people have already gotten the virus, that’s one way of getting to herd immunity, but really, the most efficacious way is getting the vaccine, so just strongly encourage everyone to get the vaccine sooner rather than later,” said Dr. Cynthia Romero, who is the director of the M. Foscue Brock Institute for Community and Global Health at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
Romero also served as state health director in 2013 and 2014. She says people need to do what they can to mitigate the virus.
“The virus hasn’t gone away,” Romero said. “It’s still amidst us and around us and unfortunately at the pace that we’ve not been able to get the vaccines in everybody yet, we’re still seeing individuals being infected by the virus.”
Health experts estimate 70% to 80% of the population needs to be protected against COVID-19 to reach herd immunity.
Avula expects demand for vaccines to drop soon, so state leaders are looking at holding more walk-in and mobile clinics. Additionally, they plan to work with more primary care providers.
“The more that we can make vaccine available through primary care settings, the more likely it is that someone who has questions would be advised to get vaccinated by their physician and decide to do it,” said Avula.
So when might we reach herd immunity? It will likely vary in different parts of the state, based on vaccine acceptance rates. An analysis from UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute shows the eastern region of the state approaching that 70% mark toward the end of June.
Avula believes reaching that threshold depends on vaccinating kids and teens.
“I think a lot of it ultimately depends on how quickly we get approval for the younger population,” Avula said. “So we anticipate that we will have an approved vaccine for that 12- 15 as early as late May, and so that will open up another 400,000 eligible Virginians.”
There are also people who are still hesitant. The experts urge them to ask questions and do research.
Romero said, “There’s information that could be looked into to give yourself some peace of mind.”
The doctors acknowledge reaching herd immunity may be challenging and take a few more months, but it will be worth it.
“All of us want a return to normalcy,” said Avula. “All of us want to open up our businesses, our economy, our schools, and we are able to do that more quickly if we have fewer potential hosts and that means more people who have been vaccinated.”
Romero also believes the pandemic has given many people new perspective on how easily viruses and droplets spread, so wearing masks as needed and frequently cleaning surfaces may become more common.