Team Biden: On second thought, don't bet on herd immunity until around Thanksgiving -- or later

I hope this is another case of the White House setting the bar extremely, absurdly low so that they can claim they “overperformed” when they end up clearing it easily later. They’ve done that with their target for daily vaccinations, shooting for one million per day even though we had already exceeded that pace by the time Biden was sworn in. They seem to be doing it with school reopenings too, with Jen Psaki claiming yesterday that they’re aiming for more than half of schools to hold in-class instruction at least one day per week by the end of April — even though, again, we’re already outpacing that goal.


So, fingers crossed that they’re privately hoping/expecting that we’ll reach herd immunity around August or September but have decided to start whispering about November in order to give themselves plenty of leeway.

I doubt it, though. There are good reasons to believe that herd immunity’s going to be a tough, maybe impossible nut to crack.

Top members of President Joe Biden’s COVID response team are warning internally that the U.S. may not reach herd immunity until Thanksgiving or even the start of winter—months later than originally calculated—according to two senior administration officials.

In an interview with CBS News this week, Biden hinted at some of these concerns, saying it would be “very difficult” to reach herd immunity—a population-wide resistance to the virus—“much before the end of the summer” with the current daily rate of approximately 1.3 million vaccine doses. Other top officials working on the federal government’s COVID-19 response say the are uneasy about vaccine supply long term and the impact on herd immunity, and have begun to explore ways to expand U.S. manufacturing capacity, potentially through new partnerships with outside pharmaceutical firms.

Eh, if only the problem were limited supply of the drug. That would be simple to solve in time. The deeper, intractable problem is the rise of the variants. One, the British variant, is highly contagious, which means we’ll need an even higher level of immunization to reach herd immunity than we’d need for common COVID. Two others, the South African and Brazilian variants, are sufficiently different from common coronavirus that they’re capable of reinfecting people who’ve survived regular ol’ COVID. We’ll actually end up backsliding on herd immunity as those two variants propagate, at least until pharma comes up with booster shots targeting them specifically.


And although it’s a cinch that they will provide those shots, many infections from those strains will occur while that vaccination process plays out. Every new infection that does will raise the odds of a new mutation producing a new, more efficient strain that we’ll end up needing *another* special booster for potentially. No wonder outlets like The Atlantic have started reframing expectations for herd immunity, treating it as less of a goal under the circumstances than more of a, shall we say, nice aspiration.

No wonder too that the CDC today nudged Americans to start doubling up on masks, or at least making sure that the single mask you’re wearing fits tightly. We can’t get people vaccinated quickly enough to stop the British variant before it does damage. The only way to protect most of the population is the old-fashioned way of doing everything possible to keep them from getting infected in the first place:

CDC conducted experiments last month to test the effectiveness of mask combinations at reducing the amount of particles released during a cough. A three-ply surgical mask blocked 42 percent of particles from a simulated cough, and a three-ply cloth mask blocked 44 percent. But a cloth mask covering a medical mask blocked 92 percent of the particles, the report said.

In a second experiment, a dummy wearing double masks and one wearing a knotted/tucked medical reduced exposure for an unmasked dummy by 82 percent and 62 percent respectively. When one dummy was not wearing any masks and the one acting as the bystander wore a double mask or a knotted/tucked medical mask, the bystander’s exposure was reduced by 83 and 64.5 percent respectively.

But when both dummies wore double masks or knotted/tucked medical masks, the bystander’s exposure was reduced by more than 95 percent in both situations.


“The good news is that even with B117 as a dominant variant in the UK and elsewhere … cases plummeted when people stop having contact, when people wore masks, when you have people not sharing indoor air with people not in your household,” said former CDC chief Tom Frieden to the Daily Beast. And that *is* good news — except that some governors like Andrew Cuomo, eager to capitalize on the recent decline in cases, are actually moving towards *loosening* restrictions on restaurants to goose the economy a bit. Doubtless many Americans are being more cavalier about masking lately too due to their optimism about the vaccines. It’s the standard story of the pandemic: We’re reacting to conditions as they are at the moment instead of how they’re likely to be a month from now if don’t think ahead.

There’s another problem with herd immunity, namely that we need people to agree to get the vaccine. If this poll from YouGov is accurate, only 50 percent (eight percent who’ve gotten it already plus 42 percent who are prepared to do so) can be counted on to do so:


Gallup’s new numbers are more optimistic, showing 71 percent willing to get the shot and some strong partisan differences:

The common thread in both polls is that upwards of 30 percent say they don’t want the vaccine. That doesn’t mean herd immunity is unattainable; obviously, some meaningful chunk of that 30 percent will be immunized eventually the old-fashioned way. But it means that the battle against the South African and Brazilian variants, which can reinfect people who’ve had common COVID already, will probably be a long one. “Herd immunity by Thanksgiving” seems optimistic, frankly. Maybe in this case Sleepy Joe hasn’t moved the goalposts far enough.

I’ll leave you with this, part of the CDC effort to get Americans to commit to masking now more than ever. Exit question: Would the Joker really wear a mask?

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