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COVID-19 herd immunity less likely as vaccination demand shrinks, Forsyth expert says
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COVID-19 herd immunity less likely as vaccination demand shrinks, Forsyth expert says

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North Carolina took about 4½ months for nearly 50% of its adult population to get at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Some 42% of people 16 and older are considered fully vaccinated.

However, with demand drying up locally and statewide, local and state health officials are becoming increasingly pessimistic that herd immunity can be reached this year, if at all.

Herd immunity typically is defined as having between 65% and 80% of a population either vaccinated or exposed and recovered from an infectious virus.

Both President Joe Biden and Gov. Roy Cooper have pitched a return to normalcy this summer as the main incentive for getting vaccinated.

Cooper has said he would lift the statewide indoor mask mandate on June 1 if two-thirds of adult North Carolinians have received at least one vaccine dose by that date and positive test rates remain below 5%.

However, Cooper and state Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen acknowledged last week that vaccination demand has slowed considerably since April 1.

Dr. David Priest, an infectious disease expert with Novant Health Inc., said Tuesday that there are reports of up to 22% of Americans saying they will never get the vaccine — and others who want to wait.

“The daily vaccination rates have trended down ... even though all of our centers are open to walk-in,” he said. “The chance to really get enough people vaccinated to eliminate (COVID-19) is becoming smaller and smaller and smaller.”

As a result, Priest said, “COVID is going to be in the community for the foreseeable future, and indoor masking will be the last precaution to be lifted.

“It may become seasonal and require a booster shot, so it’s really important to protect yourself and get vaccinated.”

Priest said that “what’s heartbreaking to me is that we will still see tragedies around COVID, even if the amount in the community is much lower and getting closer to normal.

“Because individuals will get COVID, die from COVID or be hospitalized from COVID who were not vaccinated and could have been protected.”

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Vaccinating ages 12 to 15

Priest said North Carolina and the nation should get a boost when children ages 12 to 15 being are approved to take the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, potentially as soon as next week.

“It’s exciting because that represents another segment of the population that has not been a candidate for the vaccine,” Priest said.

“Younger people have vigorous immune systems, and they tend to respond well to vaccination. So hopefully that means they will be protected for a longer period of time.

Priest expressed confidence in “people in that age group being willing to be vaccinated ... because they want to get back to doing things they want to do.”

Priest said that, because schools require children to be vaccinated “for a whole host of infectious diseases for many decades with great success, COVID may eventually join that vaccination list.”

Priest said he laments that segments of society today don’t tend to recognize how dangerous infectious diseases could be — polio, measles and mumps, for example — if not for widespread vaccination during childhood.

“While the risk for them is rare, we have to protect the entire society from what can be deadly diseases, and the vaccines are incredibly safe,” Priest said.

“If we let our guard down, those diseases can re-emerge, and we have tragedies.”

Target audience

No one knows whether the promise of relaxed restrictions will motivate two groups that have proven reluctant or resistant to getting vaccinated.

The first includes people between 16 and 35, a group that has experienced an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations since Cooper ended a statewide stay-at-home curfew in late February.

The other includes those North Carolinians who have refused to get vaccinated, whether they are leery of vaccines in general, question the efficacy and safety of the vaccines or are politically opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Over the last two weeks, our highest number of cases is in that 15- to- 24-age range, followed by 25- to 34-year-olds,” Forsyth County health director Joshua Swift said.

Swift said that just 20% of people 18 to 24 in Forsyth are considered fully vaccinated, along with 27% in the 25-to-49 age range.

“We are really encouraging and reaching out to our young adults to make sure they get the vaccine,” Swift said.

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