There’s reason to be optimistic about the state of the COVID vaccines

One of the major COVID-related stories of recent weeks has been about how the slowing demand for the vaccine may be causing the U.S. to hit a wall on its way to achieving herd immunity. In fact, the New York Times published a somewhat alarmist-sounding piece this week, titled “Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe.” This news might cause some dread about the prospect of never being rid of the coronavirus, and it could even lead those who are still unvaccinated to convince themselves that there is no point in getting the jab.

It’s certainly possible that this will be the eventual outcome — that we go from trying to rid ourselves of the virus to simply managing living with it. But that is not a certainty just yet, and there is plenty of other good news about the status of our fight to exterminate COVID that should be front and center if we want more people to get vaccinated. For starters, the vaccines are incredibly effective. The Washington Post highlighted some numbers from the CDC that demonstrate just how unlikely you are to contract COVID if you have been vaccinated:

  • Out of ~87,000,000 people vaccinated, only 7,157 experienced breakthrough infections.
  • Of those, just 498 were hospitalized.
  • Of those hospitalized, only 88 died.

This means that vaccinated people have just a 0.0005% chance of hospitalization and a mere 0.0001% chance of dying from COVID. Those are phenomenal numbers! For reference, the Post notes how this level of risk compares to other common things:

Those percentages are far lower than the risk of being hospitalized with or dying of the seasonal flu, some experts note. They also represent much less risk than people are willing to take on every day when they drive in their car or engage in a sport.

We also recently learned that at least the Pfizer vaccine has held up extremely well against the variant strains of the coronavirus — and we could also see a similar story with the Moderna and J&J vaccines.

So we know the vaccines are really good, as the number of COVID cases in the U.S. is at its lowest level since September 2020. This should offer some hope that the more people get vaccinated, the harder it will be for the virus to survive (especially because vaccinated individuals are also less likely to transmit the virus to others).

Now to the second question regarding herd immunity and how likely we are to achieve it. As the aforementioned New York Times piece tried to explain it, it’s possible it is becoming increasingly difficult to hit the necessary threshold for herd immunity, as the virus mutates and forms new strains. But what this piece doesn’t really touch on is a point that was posed by statistician Nate Silver:

In other words, it might be possible to reach herd immunity with both the vaccinated population and a chunk of the unvaccinated population that has had COVID (and thus has the antibodies). Obviously, some of this may depend on the virulence of new variants and the speed at which they spread. (It is also important to note that the CDC recommends that those who have had COVID get vaccinated anyway because experts still don’t know how long you are protected from getting sick again after recovering from it.) But as the unvaccinated slice of the country shrinks and the virus has fewer and fewer viable hosts, this combination might get us over the hump.

There is some evidence that this could work. A leading Israeli doctor said last month that he believes his country is getting close to herd immunity. As the BBC reports:

In Israel, more than half (5.3 million) its residents have been vaccinated and an additional 830,000 people have tested positive for the virus in the past, which should give them some natural immunity. That works out as roughly 68% of the population who are likely to have antibodies in their blood which can fight off the virus.

Some medical experts have cautioned, though, that while initial estimates suggested herd immunity could be reached when around 60–70% of a given population has the antibodies (either through the vaccine or by contracting the virus), that figure may now be closer to 80%.

So it’s difficult to know how good the chances are of the U.S. — and the rest of the world — permanently ridding itself of the virus. But there are hopeful signs that what we’ve been doing to this point is working, and it’s all the more reason to encourage (not shame!) your friends and family who have not yet gotten the jab to do so sooner than later.




Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.

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Michael Baharaeen

Michael Baharaeen

Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.

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