COVID-19 community immunity still has a ‘ways to go’

Infectious disease experts say the only path to community or “herd” immunity is for Los Angeles County to at least double the number of residents vaccinated. Signal file photo
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As more and more of Los Angeles County’s residents either contract COVID-19 or are vaccinated against the virus, many have begun to wonder how much longer the pandemic can last. 

Community immunity, or “herd immunity,” would take effect when enough people are protected from the disease — either because they’ve already had it or because they’ve gotten vaccinated — making it harder for the virus to spread from person to person and protecting even those who cannot be vaccinated, such as newborns, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

While Dr. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert and the chief medical adviser to the president, has said the nation must achieve a vaccination rate of about 80% to reach the milestone, other health experts believe that threshold may be higher.  

Here in Los Angeles County, of the county’s more than 10 million residents, 1.2 million have reportedly contracted the virus to date, according to the county Department of Public Health.   
When combined with the 2.7 million vaccination doses administered as of March 10, the county would still need to at least double its population vaccinated before reaching herd immunity. 

“Looking at the latest numbers, we have some ways to go,” Dr. Elizabeth Hudson, regional chief of infectious diseases for Southern California Permanente Medical Group and chief of infectious diseases for Kaiser Permanente Panorama City, said of local figures. 

Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the county’s Public Health Department, agreed, adding, “True herd immunity can only be reached when we have high levels of vaccination worldwide, which is very unlikely anytime soon.” 

But with spring and summer months fast approaching, when the virus is expected to decrease, in part, due to more time spent outdoors, according to Dr. Tom Chiang, an infectious disease specialist at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, it may buy the community some much-needed time. 

“So, let’s hope the vaccine will catch up to the disease, and we can knock it down now,” Chiang said.  
More people getting vaccinated is what these health experts, along with the CDC, agree will provide the best way to safely and effectively achieve herd immunity, as it is a safer way to build protection than getting sick with COVID-19. 

Unlike traditional vaccines, these new COVID-19 vaccines are messenger RNA vaccines, also called mRNA vaccines, do not contain a weakened or inactive form of the virus itself, and instead, teach the body’s cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response, creating antibodies that protect against the real virus, according to the CDC. 

“The mRNA vaccine is much safer than any other vaccine we ever had,” Chiang said.  

Even so, Chiang believes it’s variants of the virus that might pose a problem in the future, as they may be more transmissible or resistant to the vaccine. 

“I think we’re probably going to all need boosters in about a year for whatever variant is in our area,” he added.  

Simon also added that though the emerging evidence suggests these vaccines do prevent many infections, it is unclear how truly effective the vaccines are in preventing infection. 

The good news, according to Hudson, is that L.A. County has continued to open up more eligibility tiers, most recently allowing those with underlying medical conditions — down to age 16 — to get vaccinated, which combined with the addition of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the nation’s arsenal, is a step in the right direction. 

“The best thing everyone can do is, when their turn comes, to get the COVID-19 vaccination,” Hudson said. “Getting as many people vaccinated, as safely and as quickly as possible, is our way out of the pandemic.” 

However, Hudson and Simon both believe those under 16 also need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.  

Testing and vaccine trials are underway for children ages 11-15, with more starting in the summer for even younger children, which may lead to vaccinations for middle- to high-school-aged kids by the fall, and younger kids in early 2022, according to Hudson.  

“Despite these challenges, we do know that all three approved vaccines are very effective in preventing COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths — this is why we are urging all persons 16 and older to be vaccinated as soon as possible after they become eligible,” Simon said. “This will provide strong protection from severe COVID illness, even if we continue to see low levels of spread of infection in the population.” 

That being said, these health experts agree it remains vital that residents — even those who’ve been vaccinated — continue to be vigilant and working together to use the public health practices in place to prevent the spread of the virus, such as hand-washing, wearing masks and physical distancing. 

“Bottom line: We are many months from achieving herd immunity via vaccination,” Hudson added. “Also, once we achieve herd immunity, it does not mean everything goes back to normal. COVID-19 is worldwide is highly infectious and continues to rapidly mutate. COVID-19 won’t likely completely disappear, but hopefully we can control it so it’s much more manageable.”

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