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Vaccine Skepticism Has Probably Made Herd Immunity an American Impossibility

In the early days of the pandemic, U.S. experts talked a lot about “herd immunity” — the percentage of Americans that would have to be immune to COVID-19 to send the virus to history’s dustbin. There were mixed reports of exactly what that percentage would have to be, but the idea was that if 80-90 percent of Americans could get immunized, then we truly could go back to normal. But now, new reports say herd immunity is unlikely, given how many Americans are refusing to get vaccinated.

While 50 percent of eligible U.S. adults were vaccinated in an astonishing amount of time following an unprecedented global effort, the demand has slowed to a trickle in many parts of the country where vaccine skepticism has made people wary of getting their dose. Notably, studies suggest that vaccine hesitancy is closely tied to religious affiliation — particularly white evangelicals, who are the most vaccine skeptical demographic in the country. The level of vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. combined with COVID-19’s unusually adaptive behavior makes reaching herd immunity unlikely anytime in the near future, if ever.

Instead, COVID-19 will probably become a regular part of our lives. Not as contagious or deadly as we experienced over the last year, but still a threat, particularly to the immunocompromised and elderly folks. Studies suggest about 30 percent of Americans are at least reluctant to get the vaccine. That number may go down over time, but probably not quickly enough to stay ahead of COVID-19’s mutations. “It is theoretically possible that we could get to about 90 percent vaccination coverage, but not super likely, I would say,” Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the New York Times.

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One thing that could make a difference? Faith leaders getting involved at the ground level. Studies show that where political pleas and media entreaties fail, pastors and other religious leaders can be surprisingly effective at convincing their communities to get the vaccine. A study from PRRI said that faith leaders can host vaccination forums at their churches and houses of worship and even set up vaccine sites within their doors as a way of convincing vaccine skeptics to get immunized, and that their communities are receptive to such efforts.

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