When will Virginia reach herd immunity from COVID-19? Dr. Avula says end of May earliest


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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Dr. Danny Avula, Virginia’s vaccination coordinator, said on Friday that the state could reach herd immunity as early as the end of May, though vaccine skepticism could delay that timeline.

Those comments come as the country sets a new target for normalcy. Gov. Ralph Northam posted on Facebook following President Joe Biden’s address on Thursday night.

“Americans have longed for hope and honesty since the start of this pandemic—and that’s exactly what we heard from President Joe Biden tonight. Opening up vaccine eligibility to all adults by May 1 is an ambitious target, and one that we can achieve in Virginia. Our country shares another goal—to celebrate independence from this virus on July 4. We can do this in Virginia if we all continue following public health guidelines and get vaccinated.”

Gov. Ralph Northam

Earlier this week, Northam told 8News that he is not planning to broadly lift coronavirus restrictions in Virginia until we reach herd immunity. The idea is to stamp out the virus, at least 70 to 75 percent of the population has to get vaccinated or recover from an infection.

 “The message here is that it’s going to take a while to reach herd immunity in order to get both our adults and children vaccinated,” Northam said in a press conference earlier this week.

Northam was referencing projections that older children likely won’t be eligible for the shots until the fall. Younger kids may have to wait until 2022, as the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines are still being studied in these age groups.

Debate continues over whether children will need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity but Dr. Avula thinks Virginia can meet that threshold before the shots are widely available to those under 16.

“Maybe it’s late summer before we get to that 75 percent goal based on desire and demand but I don’t think it will take as long as the fall,” Avula said. “I really do think with the additional work that we’re doing to educate and create access to vaccination, more people will get on board.”

Avula said that, based on supply, he thinks the state can “very realistically” reach herd immunity by the end of May.

Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, who heads VCU Health’s Division of Infectious Diseases, isn’t so sure.

“I think that is a bit optimistic. So my sense is it won’t be so late as December but sometime in early-to-mid summer we should have a near normalization,” Dr. Bearman said.

Bearman said that would be a reasonable time for Northam to explore lifting the mask mandate and other restrictions, as long as the data supports those decisions.

“Understanding, of course, that the science is evolving, our knowledge is increasing and, as the facts change, we might make some changes in our recommendations,” Bearman said.

As of Friday morning, 19.5 percent of Virginians had gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Department of Health data.

Moving forward, Avula is concerned that vaccine hesitancy will push back the herd immunity timeline.

“The reality is, if we look at national surveys, it looks like about 65 percent of folks are ready to do this and we will get through them quickly but that last 10 percent is going to take more work,” he said.

A recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that the “wait and see” sentiment is decreasing, from 31 percent in January to 22 percent in February. However, one in five continue to say they will get the vaccine “only if required for work, school, or other activities” (7%) or will “definitely not” get vaccinated (15%).

The survey also sheds lights on which groups are likely to be skeptical.

KFF has observed what appears to be increasing enthusiasm across racial and ethnic groups, though Black and Hispanic adults are still more likely than White adults to say they will “wait and see” before getting vaccinated.

KFF also found significant skepticism among self-identified Republicans, with nearly four in ten saying they will either “definitely not” get vaccinated or will do so “only if required.” The rate was three in ten among rural residents.

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