Herd immunity is key to getting back to normal. But will it happen?

Millions of Ohioans have received vaccines and all adults will be eligible to get them starting Monday, but a return to complete normalcy could remain elusive for longer.

Some coronavirus restrictions have been eased as COVID-19 cases decline, and some activities and amenities are returning from a long pandemic-related hibernation.

But some precautionary measures likely will need to stay in place, experts said, and conquering the virus won’t be easy because of vaccine hesitancy, new variants and inconsistent vaccination rates.

“We have a long journey ahead of us to reach herd immunity,” said Sarah Hackenbracht, president and CEO of the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association.

Some local health officials believe the coronavirus could largely disappear later this year if enough people get vaccinated, and people follow the right safety practices and don’t become complacent.

“Herd immunity absolutely is an obtainable goal as long as we continue on the current path,” said Dr. Roberto Colón, chief medical officer for Miami Valley Hospital. “It’s realistic that we could obtain that by the fall.”

What is herd immunity?

Herd immunity means enough people in the community are protected from catching a disease because they already had it or have been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Herd immunity makes it hard for the disease to spread from person to person, and it even protects people who aren’t vaccinated and who can’t be, like newborns, the agency said.

Some diseases once common in the United States are now rare because vaccines established herd immunity, such as measles, polio, mumps and chickenpox, experts say.

But no one knows for sure what it will take to get to herd immunity because the coronavirus is new and herd immunity thresholds vary by disease, said Alicia Shoults, a spokeswoman with the Ohio Department of Health.

About 95% of the population needs to be vaccinated against measles to stop transmission, according to the World Health Organization, while the threshold for polio is about 80% of the community.

Scientists estimate that potentially 75% to 85% of the population needs to be immune to reach herd immunity for COVID-19, Colón said. Some estimates are higher, at around 90%.

Making progress

The good news, Colón said, is the vaccination process began in Ohio about three months ago and already about one quarter of the eligible population has started to receive vaccines.

Some of the most vulnerable populations in the state, such as residents 70 and older, have vaccination rates of nearly 70%, Colón said.

In total, more than 2.8 million Ohioans have received at least one dose of a vaccine, including more than 382,000 people in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health, as of Wednesday.

Montgomery County opened up vaccines to everyone 16 and older last week, and other counties will follow this week.

The state also has recorded more than 1 million COVID-19 cases, including more than 147,000 in the seven-county Miami Valley region. People who contracted COVID-19 and recovered have some protection from getting the virus again. The CDC recommends those people still get vaccinated because reinfection, although rare, is possible.

Vaccine reluctance

More than 1.9 million adults in Ohio ― nearly 22% of the 18 and older population ― say they probably or definitely will not get a vaccine, according to data from U.S. Census experimental Household Pulse Survey, which was released on Wednesday.

A recent Dayton Daily News online survey also found more than one in five respondents (21.1%) said they do not plan to get a vaccine and nearly 4% were unsure. The survey had about 525 responses.

About 8% of survey respondents said they decided to get the vaccine in the past three months after originally opposing the shots or having doubts about them.

More people should feel comfortable getting shots as information continues to come out about their safety and efficacy, Colón said.

Autumn Kern, 28, who lives in Miami Twp., said she’s very pro vaccines but she was concerned that COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out too quickly. She and her fiance initially planned to take a wait-and-see approach.

But she said her comfort level with the vaccines improved considerably by the time doses became available after reading about their development and potential side effects.

“This research has been going on for a long time, then we both decided that it was worth it to be part of the people helping us get to herd immunity,” Kern said.

Kern said she believes more Ohioans will decide to get vaccinated as other people in their lives like friends and family members get shots and don’t experience serious side effects or other issues.

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Challenges ahead

Reaching herd immunity will be tough because this is a global pandemic and the world is more interconnected than ever and people travel, said Dan Suffoletto, public information supervisor with Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County.

Infection risks will remain as long as sizable shares of the U.S. and global population are not immune, he said.

Also, he said, it’s unclear how long immunity from vaccines or prior exposure will last, and new vaccine-resistant strains could be a problem.

“It’s quite possible that people will need a booster shot down the road,” he said. “If you need a booster shot, what is the rate of acceptance and the number of people who will do that?”

COVID-19 vaccines keep people from getting sick, Suffoletto said, but scientists are still learning how well they prevent people from spreading the virus to others.

Until more information is available, he said vaccinated residents should continue taking precautions in public places, such as wearing masks, staying six feet apart, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.

Relaxing restrictions

Coronavirus-related restrictions most likely will be lifted gradually, as the population moves closer to herd immunity, said Hackenbracht, with the hospital association.

“It’s a slow process ― we have to move at the pace at which the community is ready to receive the vaccine,” Hackenbracht said. “We have to make it available in every location, every format that we can ... but we have to meet people where they are.”

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Some activities plan to return this spring and summer, including Dayton Dragons minor league baseball, and concerts at the Fraze Pavilion in Kettering and the Levitt Pavilion Dayton.

As vaccinations increase and COVID-19 cases decline, recommended safety guidelines could change. Recently, the CDC started recommending spacing K-12 students three feet apart, instead of six.

The state of Ohio plans to rescind all health orders if COVID-19 cases fall to 50 cases per 100,000 residents for two weeks. The rate, as of Wednesday, was 143.8 cases per 100,000 residents.

Most people agree that vaccine hesitancy is perhaps the largest challenge to overcome. Others say reaching herd immunity could be difficult until children and young people can be vaccinated.

To combat the spread of infection, local hospitals and health care providers are working closely with faith and community groups to remove barriers to vaccination, said Lisa Henderson, vice president of health initiatives with the Greater Dayton Hospital Association.

She said that includes educating the community about their safety and effectiveness, providing shots in convenient locations, and distributing vaccines equitably, ensuring disadvantaged and minority communities have access.

Maybe here to stay

Viruses mutate and new variants of the coronavirus have emerged. Others could follow that potentially may be more contagious, deadlier and vaccine resistant, said Dr. Gary Lewis LeRoy, associate dean of student affairs and admissions with Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.

But it’s also possible that new variants will be weaker and less dangerous, he said.

COVID-19 could become like the seasonal flu, LeRoy said, and people might need a new shot every year.

The seasonal flu is a descendant of the virus that caused the 1918 flu pandemic, LeRoy said, and humans over time developed some immunity that made it less lethal, even though it continues to circulate.

“Maybe it will be a seasonal COVID vaccine we’ll have to take along with our seasonal flu vaccine, to keep us from having other outbreaks,” he said.

Staff Writer Jordan Laird contributed to this report.

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