The COVID-19 pandemic has surged in the last month with national totals now close to eclipsing 5 million positive COVID-19 cases. Social distancing, frequent COVID-19 testing, and access to rapid COVID-19 tests help track and evaluate a community’s risk for widespread infections. But many patients are hopeful for a vaccine as they eagerly await for a new development towards the “new normal.” But a vaccine may not be enough to completely rid ourselves of the novel coronavirus.
Coronavirus researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch explained to NPR that a vaccine, along with active prevention efforts, is the best way to achieve “herd immunity” that limits the symptoms and spread of COVID-19. Just like other seasonal illnesses, such as the flu or common cold, the coronavirus may never really go away but its lethality and likelihood of fatal symptoms can be drastically lowered.
Vineet Menachery, a coronavirus researcher at UT Medical Branch, explains that fully eradicating viruses is extremely rare throughout human history. Viruses like SARS-coronavirus (2002) and smallpox are just a few examples of high-profile infectious diseases that were effectively eradicated through vaccines. Most viruses like influenza, the common cold, and similar seasonal illnesses are very hard to completely eliminate.
What researchers ultimately found is that society is likely to build a generalized immunity towards COVID-19 symptoms, just like how patients that get a cold or flu have irritating but mild/non-fatal symptoms for the most part.
What is herd immunity?
Herd immunity is the idea that enough people will come into contact with a virus and eventually become immune to the virus’s main symptoms and effects. Herd immunity has allowed societies to operate as normal even when seasonal illnesses peak in the fall and winter seasons. However, experts suggest that vaccinations are crucial to safely build up the U.S’s herd immunity for a number of reasons.
For starters, COVID-19 causes severe illness in vulnerable patients unlike common colds and the flu. If we allow our societies to simply get mass infections of coronavirus, then hospitals and our healthcare system will overflow and be unable to handle medical needs. Known as “flattening the curve” the idea is that our current medical needs for injuries and procedures, combined with an influx of COVID cases, can lead to dire healthcare consequences. Banking on herd immunity alone is not enough to effectively phase out the virus.
Vaccines are the most helpful in building herd immunity because they can effectively build immunity for some patients, limit viral load and exposure for others, and progressively introduce the virus safely to our immune systems. Vaccines work by using a small concentration of a virus help our immune systems learn the best way to fight off a new virus.
Herd immunity and COVID-19 Prevention
Herd immunity is most successful when communities actively work to monitor, report, and prevention new cases of a virus, according to Menachery and public health experts. Vaccines plus social distancing, masks, and disinfection are the most likely path to the “new normal.”
Disease surveillance allows local healthcare providers to determine the need for testing by using reported cases and comparing them to population estimates. Providers can then determine if more prevention measures, testing, and services are needed to contain a new virus. Additionally, individual-level prevention like social distancing and masks play a big role in limiting viral load and helping to keep infections low.
Once a vaccine is present, cases are likely to go down but it is up our neighbors and ourselves to prevent infections.