NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Earlier this week, it was reported that one in 33 Nashvillians is currently infected with COVID-19.
It’s no secret that the milder omicron variant is more transmissible, leading some to ask, ‘Could this COVID-19 wave lead to herd immunity?’
Doctors say the answer isn’t so simple.
According to the Mayo Clinic, herd immunity happens when a large portion of a community becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. As a result, the whole community becomes protected, not just those who are immune.
The term has been tossed around since the start of the pandemic, but is yet to be achieved.
“I certainly hope we’re approaching herd immunity,” Dr. Spyros Kalams with Vanderbilt University Medical Center said.
Scientists report they’re seeing signs of COVID-19’s omicron variant peaking in Britain, hoping the U.S. will soon follow suite as the wildly contagious variant is running out of people to infect.
“We certainly have a combination now of the large combination of the population who has been vaccinated or had prior infection, so that gives you some degree of immunity,” Dr. Kalams said.
Yet multiple studies have proven that even though natural infection and vaccination can offer protection, immunity isn’t guaranteed.
On the other hand, there are still people with no existing immunity as they’ve avoided infection altogether.
What’s more intriguing is the virus keeps finding new ways to survive, and we don’t know what the next variant will look like.
Providing the virus doesn’t throw us another curveball, Dr. Kalams says it’s possible that the combination of vaccinations and natural immunity may finally get us to the point where the next wave of infection causes an even more mild disease than omicron.
“We still have a lot of people in the hospital right now,” Dr. Kalams said. “Numbers are high.”
Keep in mind, there are a lot of factors at play. There isn’t one simple fix.
“If you define herd immunity as the combined percentage of vaccinated individuals and individuals with a prior infection, which allows protection from the current (omicron) circulating strain, then no. We are clearly not there yet. Having enough immunity in the population is a combination of how long immunity lasts, and how often the virus changes, so this number is clearly a moving target,” Dr. Kalams said.
However, experts estimate that in the U.S., 70 percent of the population — more than 200 million people — would have to recover from COVID-19 for herd immunity. As the Mayo Clinic cites, this number of infections could lead to serious complications and millions of deaths, especially among older people and those who have existing health conditions. The health care system could quickly become overwhelmed.
“If you have a virus that’s really transmissible, a lot of people get it, the sheer numbers will tell you that even if a small number of those people are getting really sick, a small percentage of a big number is still a really big number,” Dr. Kalams explained.
This means we’re not out of the woods yet and will likely live with COVID-19 for a while.
“If you’re asking me honestly at some point is this going to look more like a milder version of other coronaviruses that are out there that we test for in our respiratory panel that will cause mild illness, I would say, ‘Yeah, that’s probably the long-term outlook,'” Dr. Kalams explained.
His overall advice remains the same. Until this virus is no longer a problem, get vaccinated and get your booster doses at the recommended time.