SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Utah’s public health experts say partial herd immunity could be emerging whether naturally or by a vaccine.
It’s believed by experts nationally that COVID-19 herd immunity will be achieved when roughly 70 to 90% of the population are immune to the virus.
In Utah, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said around 20% of the population could already be immune – naturally or by vaccine.
“It is a contributing factor, but it’s not certainly something we can rely on for preventing surges at this point,” Dunn said.
As of Tuesday, more than 623,000 Utahns have received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Utah Department of Health.
As more shots are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), health officials believe herd immunity could be achieved more quickly.
“Late summer, early fall, kinda a period to say where are we on our percent vaccinations? Are we getting close to this concept of herd immunity?” said Dr. Todd Vento, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease physician.
“We’re starting to see case counts going down, vaccine distribution ramping up, being able to get together with people and more of our societal social functions come back, I would think to some degree again, with some mask-wearing, this summer, and fall,” said Dr. Emily Spivak, who specializes in the Division of Infectious Disease at the University of Utah Health.
Dunn, Vento, and Spivak all remain cautiously optimistic about the future but said new variants could hinder the state’s progress if vaccination efforts don’t ramp up.
“In order to stop that and prevent other variants, we’re taking the same bread and butter measures,” Dunn said. “That’s really what’s going to protect us from a variant surge other than everyone getting vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
“We need to watch what’s happening with those variants,” Spivak said. “The virus mutates a lot and the faster we can get the vaccine out, the less likely we are to have these escape mutants or a spread of these mutant strains that may be less susceptible to immunity induced by the vaccine.”
To reach immunity goals, Dunn said children will also need to be protected.
“What’s important about kids, is that they’re the ones going to school together, doing extra-curricular together, so none of them are immune,” she said. “There’s going to be a risk that COVID could spread within their own small community. We’re going to have to continue to take precautions within those children groups long after adults are vaccinated.”
Dunn said trials are on-going for kids and the public could see vaccine approval by late fall.
As Utahns look ahead to the future, experts believe an endpoint to the pandemic will be as the state successfully achieves herd immunity – but it won’t all be at once.
“We’re not all of a sudden going to wake up and life will be back to 2019. It’s going to be a slowly lifting of these precaution measures,” Dunn said.
And experts said a new normal means something different for everyone.
“It’s pretty subjective what normal is and it’s a continuum,” Dunn said.
“From a public health standpoint, wearing a mask would be very important until we basically have near no detectable level of the virus so we don’t flare again,” Vento said.
Dunn, Vento, and Spivak told ABC4 News that the state is moving in the right direction, but it’s important for Utahns to continue to stay vigilant.