Vaccine hesitancy keeps herd immunity a long way off. Here’s why that’s a problem.


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The demand for COVID-19 vaccines nationally, and by extension locally, could plateau by the end of the month — well before the population reaches herd immunity, a study found.

Why is that such a big deal? 

For starters, many of the mitigation measures might have to remain in place for longer, one expert said.

“If we don’t have a majority of Americans vaccinated, we are unfortunately going to have to continue a lot of the practices that we do right now if we don’t want infections to rise (and) if we don’t want more deaths,” said Dr. Sema Sgaier, an adjunct assistant professor at Harvard University and the founder of Surgo Ventures, a nonprofit think tank that studies data trends.

The state Department of Health and Human Services says nearly a third of the state’s 10.5 million people are at least partially vaccinated while roughly a quarter are fully vaccinated — a long way from herd immunity, especially with supply starting to outpace demand in some pockets of the state.

Surgo’s recent report projects the demand for vaccines to level off by the end of the month, well short of the herd immunity goal, with a combination of vaccination rates and a national survey of attitudes toward inoculation pointing to the United States vaccinating just 50 percent of the population by July and that rate remaining relatively level until at least April 2022.

Source: Surgo Ventures.

“What does that mean?” Sgaier said. “It means physical distancing, when needed, limiting crowding and means continuing to wear masks, you know, indoors and potentially outdoors. It means shielding our high-risk individuals. So it means continuing until we really get to herd immunity.”

If the U.S. continued at the current pace of vaccination, we would cross one projected herd immunity threshold of 80 percent of the population vaccinated by early July.

But that’s only true if enough people want the vaccine — and survey results at both the state and national level indicate that might not be the case.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources says 69 percent of 1,290 people surveyed last month said they either have gotten vaccinated, have an appointment or definitely or probably will get the shot. That’s up from 60 percent last November — but still not high enough to reach herd immunity.

Source: NCDHHS.

That aligns with national results: Of the 1,670 adults surveyed by Surgo in March, 62 percent either have been vaccinated or are enthusiastic about doing so — up from 40 percent in December.

And while the share of respondents considered “persuadable” dwindled from 43 percent in December to 22 percent now, Sgaier says that still leaves a sizable group that still must be convinced.

‘We have to take this as a marketing challenge,” Sgaier said. “We really have to understand types of people that are there, and what are the reasons why they don’t want to get vaccinated.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, either. Those who are considered “cost-anxious” should be reminded that vaccination is free and that “we really need to bring vaccines as close as possible.”

For those who distrust the government or medical communities, she says it’s important to connect them with people they do trust, either specific leaders or organizations.

And for those labeled “conspiracy believers … it’s not about telling them they’re wrong, that it’s not going to work,” she said. Rather, the key is listening and acknowledging them but “then really bring the facts forward.

“It’s really a combination of strategies (that we’re) trying to work with different types of people that’s going to get us over the fence,” she said.

CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.

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