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Why Washington might not need herd immunity to ‘start taking masks off’

Inside T-Mobile Park before a Mariners game on April 2, 2021. (MyNorthwest photo)

Reaching herd immunity has long been discussed an unofficial finish line for the pandemic, both in Washington and across the United States. But could we actually start seeing restrictions relaxed before we reach that threshold? Georgetown virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen believes so.

Seattle could approach citywide herd immunity by end of May

Dr. Rasmussen estimates that roughly 80-85% of people in the United States will need to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to achieve herd immunity, a benchmark that many experts now believe the country may never reach.

But that doesn’t mean COVID-19 restrictions can’t be relaxed at a lower vaccination rate, she points out.

“We don’t have to hit the so-called herd immunity threshold,” Dr. Rasmussen told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “We just have to get a significant number of people — probably 60% upwards — vaccinated, and also get transmission down.”

Simply put, the more people who get vaccinated, the fewer avenues the virus will have to spread, even before we reach herd immunity.

Currently, roughly 38% of eligible Washingtonians are fully vaccinated, while 54% have received at least one dose. That puts it well short of the 60% mark, but it still puts the state on pace for “a more substantial reopening” sometime this summer, according to Gov. Jay Inslee. More specifically, state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah estimated Wednesday that as much as 50% of the state’s total population would be vaccinated by the end of June at its current pace.

Should Washington manage to eventually crest that 60% mark for vaccinations and drive its recent upticks in case rates and hospitalizations back down, some semblance of normalcy could be mere months away.

Poll: Seattle metro area most eager in country to get the COVID vaccine

“When we have those two conditions met, people will be able to start taking their masks off and interacting normally, and maybe even having dinner in an indoor restaurant without thinking much about it,” Dr. Rasmussen said.

You can find a vaccine location near you at this link, or call 800-525-0127 to get help finding an appointment.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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