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Are Americans Going To Reach Herd Immunity Faster Than The Media Is Telling You?

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent
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Vaccination rates are ramping up and case rates are falling, and the math says America may be on track to reach herd immunity faster than many people expected.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, experts and pundits in the media have forecasted a long timetable for America’s return to normalcy. The number of vaccinated individuals, recovered COVID-19 patients, and unconfirmed cases paints a rosier picture than the current prevailing narrative, though.

In December 2020, even after Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine became the first to win approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said America likely wouldn’t be fully back to normal until sometime in 2022.

“But we can see now that somewhere between 12 and 18 months, and we have a chance, if we manage it well, to get back to normal,” Gates told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infection disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, said in January that Americans likely wouldn’t be able to return to normal daily activities until sometime in the fall of 2021. “I would hope that by the time we get to the fall of 2021, late September, October, November, that we will be able to approach a strong degree of normality,” Fauci said as the United States was ramping up vaccine distribution.

Columbia University environmental health professor Jeffrey Shaman told Politifact that lockdown measures shouldn’t be lifted until the end of July. L.J. Tan, chief strategy officer for the Immunization Action Coalition, said people would be back to normal life “hopefully before Thanksgiving.”

Experts disagree on what the exact threshold for herd immunity for a virus is, but most estimates fall somewhere in the 70% to 90% range. For the United States to reach the midpoint of that range, and have 80% of adults “immune,” roughly 205 million Americans would need to be protected against COVID-19. (RELATED: White House Announces New CDC Mask Guidance, Three New Mass Vaccination Sites In Texas)

Over 27 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19 to date, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over 44 million vaccine doses have been administered, according to the CDC, although currently available COVID-19 vaccines require two doses for full efficacy.

In the last seven days, the average vaccination rate in the United States has been about 1.5 million per day and rising, according to The Washington Post. That rate is up 10% from the previous seven days.

If that rate of increase held, the United States would reach 410 million doses administered by late-May, enough to inoculate 80% of American adults. The Biden administration has pledged to take steps that would continue to increase vaccination rates. However, it shouldn’t be necessary to administer 410 million doses to reach herd immunity.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which requires only one dose, has been submitted to the FDA for emergency authorization. Adding a one-dose vaccine to the pool of those available could rapidly increase America’s vaccination rate, as individuals are currently required to wait weeks between shots. (RELATED: Johnson & Johnson CEO Predicts Annual COVID-19 Vaccines Will Be Necessary For Foreseeable Future)

Another factor to consider regarding vaccinations is that not all Americans will choose to get one. In a recent Monmouth poll, a quarter of Americans said it was likely they would never get a COVID-19 vaccine, further reducing the pool of people needed to be vaccinated unless it becomes mandatory.

Weekly new cases have been declining for weeks, at a far greater rate than the CDC has projected. Cases are projected to continue to fall as more individuals are vaccinated, but total cases will still likely pass 30 million in the coming weeks, according to the CDC’s data.

However, scientists have said that a significant portion of COVID-19 cases may be going undetected, particularly cases that are mild or asymptomatic. In November, CDC researchers estimated that the true number of infections in the United States could be a staggering eight times as high as the confirmed CDC count, according to NPR.

The model used by those researchers was based on the number of individuals who had COVID-19 antibodies. Even if the true rate of uncounted cases was only double, not eight times, that would mean the U.S. is currently approaching 60 million cases.

COVID-19 deaths are heavily concentrated in certain demographic groups. 80% of COVID-19 deaths have been among Americans aged 65 and older, according to the CDC. There are only about 55 million Americans within that age range, meaning the bulk of the country’s most vulnerable population will be vaccinated far sooner than May. (RELATED: Two Masks Are Better Than One In Fighting Against COVID-19, Says CDC Study)

While an exact projection for when the United States will reach full herd immunity doesn’t exist, and may be impossible to create, the numbers make it clear that case and death rates will almost certainly be drastically reduced far earlier than fall 2021. With nearly 30 million Americans already having confirmed COVID-19 cases, millions more potentially infected with unconfirmed cases, 50 million or so Americans unwilling to get a vaccine at all, and a daily vaccination rate approaching 2 million, it’s evident that it won’t take until November for 205 million or more adults to be protected against COVID-19.

There are caveats, of course. Previously being infected with COVID-19 does not grant 100% immunity to catching it again, although cases of reinfection are incredibly rare. No vaccine is 100% effective either, and new strains of the virus could develop that are more resistant to existing vaccines.

Deaths are concentrated among seniors, though, and they’re being prioritized for vaccination in all 50 states, according to The Post. Hospitalization and death rates appear primed to plummet in the coming weeks as more and more Americans get shots, and those are the primary reasons cited for the numerous lockdown restrictions and lifestyle changes Americans have been living with for nearly a year.