Road to herd immunity could be a challenge for Washington

Apr 29, 2021, 5:28 AM
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A notice outside Lumen Field's mass vaccination site in Seattle. (MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

It’s the question that has been on everyone’s mind since the first vaccines were given to medical workers in December — how long until Washington reaches herd immunity?

President Biden has pointed to the Fourth of July as a herd immunity goal, and health officials have optimistically talked of a return to “normal” by this summer. But with vaccine demand starting to wane in some parts of the country, some say the task of getting to that point is looking a little more daunting.

Right now — two weeks after all adults became eligible — about 40% of Washingtonians have had one dose of the vaccine, and just under 30% of Washingtonians are fully-vaccinated.

Health experts estimate that about 70% of the population needs the vaccine to reach herd immunity — but with kids under 16 not yet eligible, that will mean an even higher percentage of adults.

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“In excess of 80% of the eligible population needs to be vaccinated,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist.

State Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah said it looks likely that the Pfizer vaccine could be approved for 12- to 15-year-olds within the next month or two, but Lindquist noted that the models requiring 80% take that into account.

With access issues for some and vaccine hesitancy for others, it could be tough to get to that number.

“It is becoming harder to reach that community immunity,” Lindquist acknowledged.

Part of the plan to get doses out as quickly as possible involves switching gears away from the pro rata system where the situation warrants. Assistant Health Secretary Michele Roberts said that instead of giving counties a proportionate number of doses to eligible population, they are “definitely starting to shift vaccine to where the demand is and where provider orders are.”

“We are going to let no dose go unused, so if providers in some of these jurisdictions haven’t ordered all their doses, we are shifting those to other counties to make sure all doses are used,” she said.

She said that a big part of the reason for different vaccine rates between counties is an access issue — so they’re working with providers at the community level to increase vaccine convenience. This includes efforts such as providing transportation to and from appointments for people, keeping clinics open later to accommodate working people who cannot get away during the day, and helping people who do not use the internet to make appointments over the phone.

The vaccine hesitancy may be a little more ambiguous to solve, but Lindquist said it will likely require a shift in thinking.

“This shot is not about you, it is about your community … so that is the real shift that needs to happen here, we need to start thinking of what’s best for the community,” he said.

Ultimately, the health officials said, the vaccine is the quickest and most direct tool to get us out of the pandemic. And now, with a fourth wave upon the state and variants at an all-time high, the vaccine is more critical than ever.

“We’re also now estimating that 60-75% of cases in the state of Washington right now are the B.117 variant, which, as you know, spreads more easily and likely increases severity, as well,” Shah said.

This is exactly what doctors here feared when the B.117 variant first was detected in the U.K., where it exploded from a few cases to the majority of new cases in London in a matter of months.

Shah said this makes it all the more important to get vaccinated as soon as possible, if you haven’t already. To locate an appointment, go to the Department of Health’s Vaccine Locator tool.


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Road to herd immunity could be a challenge for Washington