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Is herd immunity possible? It’s complicated, says MSU public health expert

a person holds a vaccine vial
Adobe Stock

Until recently, Michiganders struggled to find open vaccine appointments. Some even crossed state lines to get their shots. Now that vaccine supply has increased, the state is facing an opposite challenge: finding enough people who are able and willing to sign up for a dose — and soon.

Debra Furr-Holden, an associate dean and professor of public health at Michigan State University, says it’s time to look beyond mass vaccination sites and develop new distribution strategies. Some unvaccinated Michiganders want the vaccine, but face barriers that have prevented them from securing an appointment, she explains.

“What we've seen in communities now are things like appointment-free vaccination sites, where you can just simply show up. And they're not just at the mass vaccination sites. They're in local community sites, in churches, in smaller pharmacies and community centers and places like that,” she said. “Then I think the real moonshot, and where we need to go next, is we need to start taking the vaccine to people and consider vaccinating them on their doorsteps.”

Furr-Holden says that somewhere between 70 to 85% of the U.S. population will need to be immune to COVID-19 before we reach herd immunity. But, she explains, public health officials say the concept of “herd immunity” is a complicated one, especially in the case of the coronavirus.

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Furr-Holden says there are different types of immunity — you can become immune to COVID-19 if you contract the virus and then recover, or if you’ve received the vaccine. But, she notes, it's looking like people who get vaccinated have a longer-lasting immune response and protection, compared with those who get immunity from contracting the virus itself.

Plus, she adds, new variants of the virus may respond differently to natural immunity or vaccines than the original virus strain does.

“So to get to herd immunity, we have to do it quickly and get spread down so that some of these other factors don't have us in a never-ending cycle of surges,” she said.

But, based on the number of people vaccinated in Michigan so far, there's still work to be done before we reach herd immunity. As of May 3, only 38.9% of the state population has received a complete dose of the vaccine. Furr-Holden, who’s also the director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions, says that many people want to be vaccinated but face barriers like transportation or complicating medical conditions. She suggests that local organizations and community leaders can help play a role in expanding access and awareness in this next phase of the vaccine distribution process.

“A lot of people just have ongoing questions. And it's our job to make sure that they get those questions answered,” she said.

Furr-Holden says efforts to remove barriers to vaccines and continue distributing doses are crucial. But, she adds, it’s also important to balance increasing vaccine distribution with following public health measures that mitigate spread of the virus. She says that, going forward, COVID-19 is likely to be endemic in the human population, so it’s important that we work to find the best group of strategies to keep the virus at bay.

That’s why it’s so important that people get vaccinated now, Furr-Holden says.

“For herd immunity to really work, we've got to have it happen in a very short period of time so we can stop the spread of this virus,” she said. “In the absence of that, we really are going to be in a never-ending cycle.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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