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U.S. Not On Pace To Meet Biden's Vaccination Goal

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to turn now to President Biden's handling of the pandemic here in the U.S. and the goal he set last month of having 70% of Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 by the Fourth of July. And by that, he means either fully vaccinated or having received at least one dose. While some states are closer to meeting that goal than others, many authorities in this area predict that the country as a whole is unlikely to hit that 70% mark by Independence Day.

We wanted to hear more about what this may mean as the country tries to reopen and resume many of the activities that were restricted or put on hold at the height of the pandemic, so we called Bill Hanage. He is an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and he's with us now from Cambridge, Mass. Professor Hanage, thanks so much for talking with us.

BILL HANAGE: Thanks for having me on the show.

MARTIN: So, as we mentioned, President Biden set the goal of 70% of Americans being at least partially vaccinated by July 4. Can I ask your view? Do you think the country will reach that goal?

HANAGE: I think it's pretty unlikely that the country as a whole is going to reach that goal. I think it's going to get very close, and it's certainly going to get there in a lot of places. But the country as a whole, it's going to be a bit tough to get there. On the other hand, like I say, I think we're going to be close.

MARTIN: So what happens if we don't get there? Is that a big setback? Or is that 70% mark more of a, I don't know, symbolic number?

HANAGE: Yeah. Yeah. The 70% mark is just a - sort of a line in the sand. I mean, it's a reasonable amount of immunity in the population. And it's great. And we'd much rather have 70% than 60%. But on the other hand, 80%, 90% would still be better. But 70% is quite a lot. And it gets us a lot closer to the goal that we should have, which is making this something which doesn't cause large outbreaks and is something that we are able to handle in the future.

MARTIN: So this is where I want to ask you about a term that I think a lot of people will have heard in really - recent months, really, over the course of the year, I think. It's that phrase herd immunity. And some people are using that to describe the point at which enough people are immune or protected against the virus so that further spread is stopped or at least severely limited. Can I just ask you to give me your scientific explanation of that term and also whether it's even useful to use in this context?

HANAGE: Yeah. Epidemiologists sometimes wince when they hear herd immunity being bandied about because it's been unfortunately used in common understanding during the pandemic as a sort of finish line beyond which we - once we get there, we can just say, OK. That's it. It's over. And that's not really the right way to think about it.

The reason why herd immunity is a thing is that an epidemic, an outbreak requires supply of fresh people to be infected. It's like a wildfire. If it burns out everything, then it'll eventually exhaust all of its fuel. And because people are immune once they've been infected, that means that, you know, people who have recovered from infection or have been immunized can no longer be infected. And that is - produces, eventually, a situation where there's just not enough raw material for the virus to keep going. But - and this is a really important but - the exact point at which that occurs is really dependent on the type of contacts we make. And it's really dependent upon who is vaccinated and whether or not you have clumps of unvaccinated people.

MARTIN: So realistically, could you just give me a sense of what the future of the coronavirus looks like here? Let's just start with this summer. What can we expect to happen this summer and as we head into the fall?

HANAGE: So over this summer, we expect things to be relatively quiet in a lot of places. And we have a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, the summer was relatively quiet last year, and that was obviously before we had lots of immunization. We do expect there to be a bit of seasonality. Coronaviruses are not like flu. They're not strongly seasonal. But we do see, you know, more transmission happening in the fall and winter than in the summer.

Now, over the coming months, we expect, perhaps, to see some localized outbreaks. I mean, I and a lot of my colleagues are especially watching the South because you'll recall the South had a surge in the Sun Belt over last summer. And the South has got quite patchy vaccination. There are some counties with a lot. There are some counties with less. And so that's going to give us a lot of information and a lot of stuff to help understand what we can expect towards the fall and the winter of this year.

MARTIN: So these days, more and more people are starting to get back into a lot of the activities that they haven't been able to do since the pandemic started. People are starting to go back to bars and restaurants and into movie theaters, and concerts are starting up again. And, you know, as you can imagine, people are excited about that. But given what you know about this virus and the vaccination efforts, which are, as you've just, you know, told us, they're not consistent across the country, is it too soon?

HANAGE: That's a very good question. And I think you have to always remember the context that you're in. So if you're in a situation where almost everybody who you contact is going to be immunized, then you're in a pretty good situation for doing those kinds of things. On the other hand, I think that it's always easy - or it's important to remember that there are going to be some people who are not vaccinated. And we want to be able to protect them for as long as possible until we get vaccination levels really high.

So personally, I am choosing - when I'm going into a place with a crowd of, you know, lots of people, I'm choosing to wear a mask. The reason is that even though I'm immunized, it's not complete 100% protection. And I really would not want to carry on those chains of transmission such that it would eventually get into an unvaccinated person or somebody who was, for instance, immunocompromised.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, how - I don't know if this - this is not a really precise question, but I'm interested in how you are feeling about where we are at this stage of the pandemic. Is there any way you can kind of assess that for me?

HANAGE: Well, if you're talking to epidemiologists, you'll often find that they have this kind of - they feel split down the middle because on the one hand, I look at my local environment. In Cambridge, Mass., the vaccination rates are through the roof. I mean, they're really very good. And I don't expect there to be large outbreaks here.

Then I think about the other places. I think about places which are not immunized. I think about places, you know, networks of folks who have not been able to access a vaccine because they're scared of taking time off work or scared of the side effects.

And then, of course, I also think about the rest of the world because in the rest of the world, there's so many people who are yet to get any chance of vaccine. And we're going to need them to be protected. The pandemic is not going to be over, over anytime soon, unfortunately. And epidemiologists can't get that thought out of their heads.

MARTIN: That was Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Professor Hanage, thanks so much for spending some time with us. And I do hope we'll talk again.

HANAGE: Thanks. It was great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRIS HELLER'S "AMBIENT GOLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.