By Juanita Carnes FNP, Board of Health chair and Joseph Rouse, health director

Chair, Westfield Board of Health

During the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were given hope by scientists’ prediction of a vaccine and herd immunity leading us out of the terrifying place we found ourselves. The idea that a large portion of the population would choose not to get vaccinated was not considered in that equation. Due to misinformation, distribution issues and hesitancy for whatever reason, vaccinations and herd immunity are not happening as quickly as predicted.

Herd immunity is not the same as eradication of the virus. Herd immunity, yes, compares us humans to cows. If one cow in the herd gets sick with a virus it can spread through the entire herd causing illness and death. If some of those cows don’t die, and gain immunity from being sick, they help block that virus spreading. Herd immunity is reached when the virus can’t spread because most cows have built up immunity through natural infection or vaccine. The virus can no longer find anyone to spread to. This is thought to occur when an infected cow or person spreads the virus to less than one other person. During the height of the pandemic, COVID-19 transmission was about 4 cases to each infected individual.

Westfield Health Director

In order to ascertain how many people must have immunity to protect our herd depends on how quick the virus’s rate of transmission is, how susceptible the population is and behaviors that can increase or decrease transmission. It was thought earlier in the pandemic that herd immunity would be reached when 70% of the population was vaccinated. Recently that percentage has been predicted up to 90% because of the more virulent variants and decreasing vaccination rates. Thirteen percent of US adults are not planning to ever get vaccinated according to a recent survey.

Herd immunity slows transmission. It does not eliminate it. Even if we reach that end game percentage, outbreaks will still occur. But it does give us more control over the virus. There will be flare ups and surges in areas where herd immunity is less. We also do not know yet how long immunity will last from the vaccine. We don’t have clear knowledge of natural immunity but we do know the vaccine offers excellent immunity. Even if we reach herd immunity, it could be lost depending on how long the immunity from vaccines last. Our generation does not worry about measles, mumps and rubella like previous generations. The names are familiar to us because they are on our vaccine records not because we worry about contracting them. But because of those unvaccinated, we occasional have outbreaks. This is likely where we are headed with COVID-19. Or like the flu, it circulates at a less severe level but still capable of becoming more virulent when our defenses are down.

As hard as we try to educate and inform in this column, it feels as though there is more doom and gloom than hope. We truly want more of hope and health. And there is hope. Hope is seen in the decreasing number of cases and deaths. Herd immunity is not a number reached and then game over. And if not reached; no gain. The population still receives benefits from any level of herd immunity. Obviously, the more vaccinated, the more protected. We have done a stellar job in getting the vulnerable elderly population vaccinated with a rate of 75% vaccinated in 65 and older. While it doesn’t look hopeful that this country will reach true herd immunity, getting as many as we can vaccinated brings us out of the darkness, into the light, and that much closer to protecting the rest of the herd.

Take care of yourself and someone else.

Dedicated health department members who have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic are: Debra Mulvenna RN, Assistant Director Evelyn Bristol RN, Steve Cipriani, Health Inspector Thomas Hibert, Health Inspector Cheryl McMordie, Office Manager Crystal Dugay, Kathi Cotugno, CORE coordinator Other Board Members: Margaret Doody, Stan Strzempko MD.



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