Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe

Reaching 'Herd Immunity' Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe - The  New York Times

Widely circulating coronavirus variants and persistent hesitancy about vaccines will keep the goal out of reach. The virus is here to stay, but vaccinating the most vulnerable may be enough to restore normalcy.

Early in the pandemic, when vaccines for the coronavirus were still just a glimmer on the horizon, the term “herd immunity” came to signify the endgame: the point when enough Americans would be protected from the virus so we could be rid of the pathogen and reclaim our lives.

Now, more than half of adults in the United States have been inoculated with at least one dose of a vaccine. But daily vaccination rates are slipping, and there is widespread consensus among scientists and public health experts that the herd immunity threshold is not attainable — at least not in the foreseeable future, and perhaps not ever.

Instead, they are coming to the conclusion that rather than making a long-promised exit, the virus will most likely become a manageable threat that will continue to circulate in the United States for years to come, still causing hospitalizations and deaths but in much smaller numbers.

How much smaller is uncertain and depends in part on how much of the nation, and the world, becomes vaccinated and how the coronavirus evolves. It is already clear, however, that the virus is changing too quickly, new variants are spreading too easily and vaccination is proceeding too slowly for herd immunity to be within reach anytime soon.

Continued immunizations, especially for people at highest risk because of age, exposure or health status, will be crucial to limiting the severity of outbreaks, if not their frequency, experts believe.

“The virus is unlikely to go away,” said Rustom Antia, an evolutionary biologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “But we want to do all we can to check that it’s likely to become a mild infection.”

The shift in outlook presents a new challenge for public health authorities. The drive for herd immunity — by the summer, some experts once thought possible — captured the imagination of large segments of the public. To say the goal will not be attained adds another “why bother” to the list of reasons that vaccine skeptics use to avoid being inoculated.

Yet vaccinations remain the key to transforming the virus into a controllable threat, experts said.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the Biden administration’s top adviser on Covid-19, acknowledged the shift in experts’ thinking.

“People were getting confused and thinking you’re never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is,” he said.

“That’s why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense,” he added. “I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”

Why reaching the threshold is tough

Once the novel coronavirus began to spread across the globe in early 2020, it became increasingly clear that the only way out of the pandemic would be for so many people to gain immunity — whether through natural infection or vaccination — that the virus would run out of people to infect. The concept of reaching herd immunity became the implicit goal in many countries, including the United States.

Early on, the target herd immunity threshold was estimated to be about 60 to 70 percent of the population. Most experts, including Dr. Fauci, expected that the United States would be able to reach it once vaccines were available.

But as vaccines were developed and distribution ramped up through the winter and into the spring, estimates of the threshold began to rise. That is because the initial calculations were based on the contagiousness of the original version of the virus. The predominant variant now circulating in the United States, called B.1.1.7 and first identified in Britain, is about 60 percent more transmissible.

As a result, experts now calculate the herd immunity threshold to be at least 80 percent. If even more contagious variants develop, or if scientists find that immunized people can still transmit the virus, the calculation will have to be revised upward again.

Polls show that about 30 percent of the U.S. population is still reluctant to be vaccinated. That number is expected to improve but probably not enough. “It is theoretically possible that we could get to about 90 percent vaccination coverage, but not super likely, I would say,” said Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Though resistance to the vaccines is a main reason the United States is unlikely to reach herd immunity, it is not the only one.

Herd immunity is often described as a national target. But that is a hazy concept in a country this large.

“Disease transmission is local,” Dr. Lipsitch noted.

“If the coverage is 95 percent in the United States as a whole, but 70 percent in some small town, the virus doesn’t care,” he explained. “It will make its way around the small town.”

Uneven Willingness to Get Vaccinated Could Affect Herd Immunity

In some parts of the United States, inoculation rates may not reach the threshold needed to prevent the coronavirus from spreading easily.

How insulated a particular region is from the coronavirus depends on a dizzying array of factors.

Herd immunity can fluctuate with “population crowding, human behavior, sanitation and all sorts of other things,” said Dr. David M. Morens, a virologist and senior adviser to Dr. Fauci. “The herd immunity for a wealthy neighborhood might be X, then you go into a crowded neighborhood one block away and it’s 10X.”

Given the degree of movement among regions, a small virus wave in a region with a low vaccination level can easily spill over into an area where a majority of the population is protected.

At the same time, the connectivity between countries, particularly as travel restrictions ease, emphasizes the urgency of protecting not just Americans but everyone in the world, said Natalie E. Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Any variants that arise in the world will eventually reach the United States, she noted.

Many parts of the world lag far behind the United States on vaccinations. Less than 2 percent of the people in India have been fully vaccinated, for example, and less than 1 percent in South Africaaccording to data compiled by The New York Times.

“We will not achieve herd immunity as a country or a state or even as a city until we have enough immunity in the population as a whole,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, the director of the Covid-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin.

If the herd immunity threshold is not attainable, what matters most is the rate of hospitalizations and deaths after pandemic restrictions are relaxed, experts believe.

By focusing on vaccinating the most vulnerable, the United States has already brought those numbers down sharply. If the vaccination levels of that group continue to rise, the expectation is that over time the coronavirus may become seasonal, like the flu, and affect mostly the young and healthy.

“What we want to do at the very least is get to a point where we have just really sporadic little flare-ups,” said Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “That would be a very sensible target in this country where we have an excellent vaccine and the ability to deliver it.”

Over the long term — a generation or two — the goal is to transition the new coronavirus to become more like its cousins that cause common colds. That would mean the first infection is early in childhood, and subsequent infections are mild because of partial protection, even if immunity wanes.

Some unknown proportion of people with mild cases may go on to experience debilitating symptoms for weeks or months — a syndrome called “long Covid” — but they are unlikely to overwhelm the health care system.

“The vast majority of the mortality and of the stress on the health care system comes from people with a few particular conditions, and especially people who are over 60,” Dr. Lipsitch said. “If we can protect those people against severe illness and death, then we will have turned Covid from a society disrupter to a regular infectious disease.”

If communities maintain vigilant testing and tracking, it may be possible to bring the number of new cases so low that health officials can identify any new introduction of the virus and immediately stifle a potential outbreak, said Bary Pradelski, an economist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Grenoble, France. He and his colleagues described this strategy in a paper published on Thursday in the scientific journal The Lancet.

“Eradication is, I think, impossible at this stage,” Dr. Pradelski said. “But you want local elimination.”

The endpoint has changed, but the most pressing challenge remains the same: persuading as many people as possible to get the shot.

Reaching a high level of immunity in the population “is not like winning a race,” Dr. Lipsitch said. “You have to then feed it. You have to keep vaccinating to stay above that threshold.”

Skepticism about the vaccines among many Americans and lack of access in some groups — homeless populations, migrant workers or some communities of color — make it a challenge to achieve that goal. Vaccine mandates would only make that stance worse, some experts believe.

A better approach would be for a trusted figure to address the root cause of the hesitancy — fear, mistrust, misconceptions, ease of access or a desire for more information, said Mary Politi, an expert in health decision making and health communication at Washington University in St. Louis.

People often need to see others in their social circle embracing something before they are willing to try it, Dr. Politi said. Emphasizing the benefits of vaccination to their lives, like seeing a family member or sending their children to school, might be more motivating than the nebulous idea of herd immunity.

“That would resonate with people more than this somewhat elusive concept that experts are still trying to figure out,” she added.

Though children spread the virus less efficiently than adults do, the experts all agreed that vaccinating children would also be important for keeping the number of Covid cases low. In the long term, the public health system will also need to account for babies, and for children and adults who age into a group with higher risk.

Unnerving scenarios remain on the path to this long-term vision.

Over time, if not enough people are protected, highly contagious variants may develop that can break through vaccine protection, land people in the hospital and put them at risk of death.

“That’s the nightmare scenario,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University.

How frequent and how severe those breakthrough infections are have the potential to determine whether the United States can keep hospitalizations and deaths low or if the country will find itself in a “mad scramble” every couple of years, he said.

“I think we’re going to be looking over our shoulders — or at least public health officials and infectious disease epidemiologists are going to be looking over their shoulders going: ‘All right, the variants out there — what are they doing? What are they capable of?” he said. “Maybe the general public can go back to not worrying about it so much, but we will have to.”

Entering a new phase of the vaccine rollout

https://mailchi.mp/da8db2c9bc41/the-weekly-gist-april-23-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Why some Americans are hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine - Vital  Record

With more than 222M Americans having received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, and 27.5 percent of the population now fully vaccinated, we are now nearing a point at which vaccine supply will exceed demand, signaling a new phase of the rollout.

This week, for the first time since February, the daily rate of vaccinations slowed substantially, down about 11 percent from last week on a seven-day rolling average. Several states and counties are dialing back requests for new vaccine shipments, and the New York Times reported that some local health departments are beginning to shutter mass vaccination sites as appointment slots go unfilled.

On Friday, the White House’s COVID response coordinator, Jeff Zients, said that the Biden administration now expects “daily vaccination rates will fluctuate and moderate,” after several weeks of accelerating pace. In every state, everyone over the age of 16 is now eligible to be vaccinated, but experts expect that demand from the “vaccine-eager” population will run out over the next two weeksnecessitating a more aggressive campaign to distribute vaccines in hard-to-reach populations, and to convince vaccine skeptics to get the shot.

Vaccine hesitancy, like so many other issues related to the COVID pandemic, has now become starkly politicized—one recent survey found that 43 percent of Republicans “likely will never get” the vaccine, as opposed to only 5 percent of Democrats. Another 12 percent of those surveyed, regardless of party identification, say they plan to “see how it goes” before getting the vaccine, a subset that will surely be unnerved by continued doubts about the safety of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine.

An expert advisory panel on Friday recommended that use of the J&J shot be resumed, but advised that a warning be included about potential risk of rare blood clots in women under 50. The first three months of the COVID vaccination campaign have been a staggering success—but getting from 27 percent fully vaccinated to the 80 percent needed for “herd immunity” will likely be a much tougher slog.

A quarter of the country won’t get the coronavirus vaccine

We’re a year into the coronavirus pandemic, so the math that undergirds its risks should by now be familiar. We all should know, for example, that the ability of the virus to spread depends on it being able to find a host, someone who is not protected against infection. If you have a group of 10 people, one of whom is infected and nine of whom are immune to the virus, it’s not going to be able to spread anywhere.

That calculus is well known, but there is still some uncertainty at play. To achieve herd immunity — the state where the population of immune people is dense enough to stamp out new infections — how many people need to be protected against the virus? And how good is natural immunity, resistance to infection built through exposure to the virus and contracting covid-19, the disease it causes?

The safe way to increase the number of immune people, thereby probably protecting everyone by limiting the ability of the virus to spread, is through vaccination. More vaccinated people means fewer new infections and fewer infections needed to get close to herd immunity. The closer we get to herd immunity, the safer people are who can’t get vaccinated, such as young children (at least for now).

The challenge the world faces is that the rollout of vaccines has been slow, relatively speaking. The coronavirus vaccines were developed at a lightning pace, but many parts of the world are still waiting for supplies sufficient to broadly immunize their populations. In the United States, the challenge is different: About a quarter of adult Americans say they aren’t planning on getting vaccinated against the virus, according to Economist-YouGov polling released last week.

That’s problematic in part because it means we’re less likely to get to herd immunity without millions more Americans becoming infected. Again, it’s not clear how effective natural immunity will be over the long term as new variants of the virus emerge. So we might continue to see tens of thousands of new infections each day, keeping the population at risk broadly by delaying herd immunity and continuing to add to the pandemic’s death toll in this country.

But we also see from the Economist-YouGov poll the same thing we saw in Gallup polling earlier this month: The people who are least interested in being vaccinated are also the people who are least likely to be concerned about the virus and to take other steps aimed at preventing it from spreading.

In the Economist-YouGov poll, nearly three-quarters of those who say they don’t plan on being vaccinated when they’re eligible also say they’re not too or not at all worried about the virus.

That makes some perverse sense: If you don’t see the virus as a risk, you won’t see the need to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, it also means you’re going to be less likely to do things like wear a mask in public.

Or you might be more likely to view as unnecessary precautions such as avoiding close-quarter contact with friends and family or traveling out of state.

About a quarter of adults hold the view that they won’t be vaccinated when eligible. That’s equivalent to about 64 million Americans.

Who are they? As prior polls have shown, they’re disproportionately political conservatives. At the outset of the pandemic, there was concern that vaccine skepticism would heavily be centered in non-White populations. At the moment, though, the rate of skepticism among those who say they voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and among Republicans is substantially higher than skepticism overall.

That shows up in another way in the Economist poll. Respondents were asked whose medical advice they trusted. Among those who say they don’t plan to get the vaccine, half say they trust Trump’s advice a lot or somewhat — far more than the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the country’s top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci.

If we look only at Republican skeptics, the difference is much larger: Half of Republican skeptics say they have a lot of trust in Trump’s medical advice.

The irony, of course, is that Trump sees the vaccine as his positive legacy on the pandemic. He’s eager to seize credit for vaccine development and has — sporadically — advocated for Americans to get the vaccine. (He got it himself while still president, without advertising that fact.) It’s his supporters, though, who are most hostile to the idea.

Trump bears most of the responsibility for that, too. Over the course of 2020, worried about reelection, he undercut containment efforts and downplayed the danger of the virus. He undermined experts such as Fauci largely out of concern that continuing to limit economic activity would erode his main argument for his reelection. Over and over, he insisted that the virus was going away without the vaccine, that it was not terribly dangerous and that America should just go about its business as usual — and his supporters heard that message.

They’re still listening to it, as the Economist poll shows. One result may be that the United States doesn’t reach herd immunity through vaccinations and, instead, some large chunk of those tens of millions of skeptics end up being exposed to the virus. Some of them will die. Some may risk repeat infections from new variants against which a vaccine offers better protection. Some of those unable to get vaccinated may also become sick from the virus because we haven’t achieved herd immunity, suffering long-term complications from covid-19.

Trump wants his legacy to be the rollout of the vaccine. His legacy will also probably include fostering skepticism about the vaccine that limits its utility in containing the pandemic.

CDC director walks tightrope on pandemic messaging

https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/546269-cdc-director-walks-tightrope-on-pandemic-messaging

Images: Tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky finds herself in a delicate position as she seeks to balance the optimism of increasing vaccinations with the reality that the U.S. is still very much in the grip of a deadly pandemic.

Walensky started the CDC job with a reputation as a savvy communicator, tasked with salvaging the reputation of an agency that took a beating under the Trump administration.

“When I first started at CDC about two months ago, I made a promise to you: I would tell you the truth, even if it was not the news we wanted to hear,” Walensky told reporters recently.

Walensky’s expertise is in HIV research, like her predecessor Robert Redfield, and before being appointed to lead the CDC, she was head of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.

While former colleagues say Walensky is the perfect fit for the CDC post, her skills are now being put to the test as she faces criticism for being both too negative and too hopeful.

“She is quite a compelling and clear communicator, but it’s a challenging set of messages to try and get out there,” said Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Public health messaging during a global pandemic is complicated enough, but experts say this particular moment is especially difficult.

After weeks of decline and then stagnation, the rate of coronavirus infections has once again started to climb across much of the country. Cases are up about 12 percent nationally compared with the previous week, averaging around 62,000 cases per day, according to the CDC.

At the same time, nearly 100 million Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Many states are expanding vaccine eligibility, in some instances to all adults, and federal health officials say there will be enough supply for everyone to be vaccinated by the end of May.

Walensky tried to emphasize both aspects this week when she issued an emotional appeal to the public.

“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope. But right now I’m scared,” Walensky said, adding that she had a “sense of impending doom” if people continued to ignore public health precautions.

Yet almost in the next breath, she talked about a “tremendously encouraging” new study showing that vaccinated people were 90 percent protected from infection, meaning they pose an extremely low risk of spreading the virus.

While that may come across as mixed messaging, experts say it accurately reflects not only where things stand right now but also how the country has been reacting to the virus for the past year.

“Whiplash is a true reflection of how we’re all experiencing the epidemic and the response to it. So I’d rather she be honest about that and others be honest about that than give people something that they want … to make them feel better,” said Judith Auerbach, a professor in the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

Auerbach, who previously worked with Walensky on HIV research, praised the director’s openness, which she said had been missing from agency leadership during the Trump administration.

“She’s being really honest about her own emotions. That’s hard for a fed to do and get away with,” Auerbach said. “The science that says we all still need to be, in fact, quite scared because we’re in this race between the vaccines … versus the emergence of these variants, and she felt it at a visceral level, and she conveyed that in a way that I thought was quite telling.”

Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia and a former CDC media relations director, said Walensky’s candor helps establish credibility.

“She has embraced the fact that credibility comes from being transparent and honest and genuine about your fears and your concerns,” Nowak said.

The CDC declined to make Walensky available for an interview, but in a statement to The Hill, an agency spokesman said every communication reflects the latest science and epidemiology.

“At times, moments must balance hope that we will move out of the pandemic with the reality that we are not out of it yet,” the spokesman said.

“We acknowledge the challenge of conveying such hope and promise that vaccines offer with the reality that cases and deaths are rising. While we are sending the critical message that people cannot and should not let up on their prevention measures, we do remain very optimistic about what the future of a fully vaccinated public will offer,” the spokesman added.

On Friday, Walensky again came under criticism for her messaging. In updated guidance, the CDC said it is safe for people who have been fully vaccinated to travel.

But Walensky struck a cautionary tone by saying the CDC still recommends anyone, vaccinated or not, avoid nonessential travel because infection numbers are so high.

“We know that right now we have a surging number of cases,” Walensky said during a White House briefing. “I would advocate against general travel overall. Our guidance is silent on recommending or not recommending fully vaccinated people travel. Our guidance speaks to the safety of doing so.”

Nowak said part of what makes public health messaging so difficult is the fact that science doesn’t always deal in absolutes and that the public overall doesn’t do well with nuance.

“Often people don’t want to listen to the nuance; they want advice and guidance to be stable. They get frustrated with the changes or when it seems to be contradictory. They also get frustrated if it doesn’t match their everyday living experiences,” Nowak said.

With the travel guidance, Walensky attempted to spell out the balance she was trying to strike and asked the public for patience and understanding.

“I want to acknowledge today that providing guidance in the midst of a changing pandemic and its changing science is complex,” Walensky said.

“The science shows us that getting fully vaccinated allows you to do more things safely, and it’s important for us to provide that guidance, even in the context of rising cases. At the same time, we must balance the science with the fact that most Americans are not yet fully vaccinated, which is likely contributing to our rising cases,” she said.

Jen Kates, director for global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has known Walensky for decades, said she thinks the CDC director is aware that she can’t escape criticism, especially when so many people have pandemic fatigue.

If the CDC is too strict and refuses to endorse relatively normal behavior, especially after people get vaccinated, it could risk others refusing to get the shot, Kates said.

But if the agency paints too rosy a picture, more people could act like the pandemic is over and risk further spread of the virus.

“It behooves public officials to always be cognizant that their words are being listened to and can be taken out of context or may be hard for people to grasp,” Kates said. “So I think Dr. Walensky is a great communicator, but that doesn’t mean that this is always easy to do and the balance is always straightforward.”

How Vaccine Refusal Could Prolong the Pandemic

Stephanie Nana, an evangelical Christian in Edmond, Okla., refused to get a Covid-19 vaccine because she believed it contained “aborted cell tissue.”

Nathan French, who leads a nondenominational ministry in Tacoma, Wash., said he received a divine message that God was the ultimate healer and deliverer: “The vaccine is not the savior.”

Lauri Armstrong, a Bible-believing nutritionist outside of Dallas, said she did not need the vaccine because God designed the body to heal itself, if given the right nutrients. More than that, she said, “It would be God’s will if I am here or if I am not here.”

The deeply held spiritual convictions or counterfactual arguments may vary. But across white evangelical America, reasons not to get vaccinated have spread as quickly as the virus that public health officials are hoping to overcome through herd immunity.

The opposition is rooted in a mix of religious faith and a longstanding wariness of mainstream science, and it is fueled by broader cultural distrust of institutions and gravitation to online conspiracy theories. The sheer size of the community poses a major problem for the country’s ability to recover from a pandemic that has resulted in the deaths of half a million Americans. And evangelical ideas and instincts have a way of spreading, even internationally.

There are about 41 million white evangelical adults in the U.S. About 45 percent said in late February that they would not get vaccinated against Covid-19, making them among the least likely demographic groups to do so, according to the Pew Research Center.

“If we can’t get a significant number of white evangelicals to come around on this, the pandemic is going to last much longer than it needs to,” said Jamie Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois.

As vaccines become more widely available, and as worrisome virus variants develop, the problem takes on new urgency. Significant numbers of Americans generally are resistant to getting vaccinated, but white evangelicals present unique challenges because of their complex web of moral, medical, and political objections. The challenge is further complicated by longstanding distrust between evangelicals and the scientific community.

“Would I say that all public health agencies have the information that they need to address their questions and concerns? Probably not,” said Dr. Julie Morita, the executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a former Chicago public health commissioner.

No clear data is available about vaccine hesitancy among evangelicals of other racial groups. But religious reasoning often spreads beyond white churches.

Many high-profile conservative pastors and institutional leaders have endorsed the vaccines. Franklin Graham told his 9.6 million Facebook followers that Jesus would advocate for vaccination. Pastor Robert Jeffress commended it from an anti-abortion perspective on Fox News. (“We talk about life inside the womb being a gift from God. Well, life outside the womb is a gift from God, too.”) The president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, tweeted a photo of himself receiving a shot.

But other influential voices in the sprawling, trans-denominational movement, especially those who have gained their stature through media fame, have sown fears. Gene Bailey, the host of a prophecy-focused talk show on the Victory Channel, warned his audience in March that the government and “globalist entities” will “use bayonets and prisons to force a needle into your arm.” In a now-deleted TikTok post from an evangelical influencer’s account that has more than 900,000 followers, she dramatized being killed by authorities for refusing the vaccine.

Dr. Simone Gold, a prominent Covid-19 skeptic who was charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct in the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, told an evangelical congregation in Florida that they were in danger of being “coerced into taking an experimental biological agent.”

The evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas wrote “Don’t get the vaccine” in a tweet on March 28 that has since been deleted. “Pass it on,” he wrote.

Some evangelicals believe that any Covid restrictions — including mask mandates and restrictions on in-person church worship — constitute oppression.

And some have been energized by what they see as a battle between faith and fear, and freedom and persecution.

Fear is the motivating power behind all of this, and fear is the opposite of who God is,” said Teresa Beukers, who travels throughout California in a motor home. “I violently oppose fear.”

Ms. Beukers foresees severe political and social consequences for resisting the vaccine, but she is determined to do so. She quit a job at Trader Joe’s when the company insisted that she wear a mask at work. Her son, she said, was kicked off his community college football team for refusing Covid testing protocols.

“Go ahead and throw us in the lions’ den, go ahead and throw us in the furnace,” she said, referring to two biblical stories in which God’s people miraculously survive persecution after refusing to submit to temporal powers.

Jesus, she added, broke ritual purity laws by interacting with lepers. “We can compare that to people who are unvaccinated,” she said. “If they get pushed out, they’ll need to live in their own colonies.”

One widespread concern among evangelicals is the vaccines’ ties to abortion. In reality, the connection is remote: Some of the vaccines were developed and tested using cells derived from the fetal tissue of elective abortions that took place decades ago.

The vaccines do not include fetal tissue, and no additional abortions are required to manufacture them. Still, the kernel of a connection has metastasized online into false rumors about human remains or fetal DNA being an ingredient in the vaccines.

Some evangelicals see the vaccine as a redemptive outcome for the original aborted fetus.

Some Catholic bishops have expressed concerns about the abortion link, too. But the Vatican has concluded the vaccines are “morally acceptable,” and has emphasized the immediate danger posed by the virus. Just 22 percent of Catholics in America say they will not get the vaccine, less than half the share of white evangelicals who say that.

White evangelicals who do not plan to get vaccinated sometimes say they see no need, because they do not feel at risk. Rates of Covid-19 death have been about twice as high for Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans as for white Americans.

White pastors have largely remained quiet. That’s in part because the wariness among white conservative Christians is not just medical, but also political. If white pastors encourage vaccination directly, said Dr. Aten, “there are people in the pews where you’ve just attacked their political party, and maybe their whole worldview.”

Dr. Morita, of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the method to reach white evangelicals is similar to building vaccine confidence in other groups: Listen to their concerns and questions, and then provide information that they can understand from people they trust.

But a public education campaign alone may not be enough.

There has been a “sea change” over the past century in how evangelical Christians see science, a change rooted largely in the debates over evolution and the secularization of the academy, said Elaine Ecklund, professor of sociology and director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.

There are two parts to the problem, she said: The scientific community has not been as friendly toward evangelicals, and the religious community has not encouraged followers to pursue careers in science.

Distrust of scientists has become part of cultural identity, of what it means to be white and evangelical in America, she said.

For slightly different reasons, the distrust is sometimes shared by Asian, Hispanic and Black Christians, who are skeptical that hospitals and medical professionals will be sensitive to their concerns, Dr. Ecklund said.

“We are seeing some of the implications of the inequalities in science,” she said. “This is an enormous warning of the fact that we do not have a more diverse scientific work force, religiously and racially.”

Among evangelicals, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians may be particularly wary of the vaccine, in part because their tradition historically emphasizes divine health and miraculous healing in ways that can rival traditional medicine, said Erica Ramirez, a scholar of Pentecostalism and director of applied research at Auburn Seminary. Charismatic churches also attract significant shares of Black and Hispanic Christians.

Dr. Ramirez compares modern Pentecostalism to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, with the brand’s emphasis on “wellness” and “energy” that infuriates some scientists: “It’s extra-medical,” she said. “It’s not anti-medical, but it decenters medicine.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci are not going to be able to persuade evangelicals, according to Curtis Chang, a consulting professor at Duke Divinity School who is leading an outreach project to educate evangelicals about the vaccine.

The project includes a series of short, shareable videos for pastors, answering questions like “How can Christians spot fake news on the vaccine?” and “Is the vaccine the Mark of the Beast?” The latter refers to an apocalyptic theory that the AntiChrist will force his sign onto everyone at the end of the world.

These are questions that secular public health entities are not equipped to answer, he said. “The even deeper problem is, the white evangelicals aren’t even on their screen.”

Mr. Chang said he recently spoke with a colleague in Uganda whose hospital had received 5,000 vaccine doses, but had only been able to administer about 400, because of the hesitancy of the heavily evangelical population.

“How American evangelicals think, write, feel about issues quickly replicates throughout the entire world,” he said.

At this critical moment, even pastors struggle to know how to reach their flocks. Joel Rainey, who leads Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va., said several colleagues were forced out of their churches after promoting health and vaccination guidelines.

Politics has increasingly been shaping faith among white evangelicals, rather than the other way around, he said. Pastors’ influence on their churches is decreasing. “They get their people for one hour, and Sean Hannity gets them for the next 20,” he said.

Mr. Rainey helped his own Southern Baptist congregation get ahead of false information by publicly interviewing medical experts — a retired colonel specializing in infectious disease, a church member who is a Walter Reed logistics management analyst, and a church elder who is a nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

On the worship stage, in front of the praise band’s drum set, he asked them “all of the questions that a follower of Jesus might have,” he said later.

“It is necessary for pastors to instruct their people that we don’t always have to be adversaries with the culture around us,” he said. “We believe Jesus died for those people, so why in the world would we see them as adversaries?”

Vaccine skepticism and disregard for containment efforts go hand in hand

It seems pretty clear the path the United States is on. Within a few months, everyone who wants to be vaccinated against the coronavirus will be, save for those below the minimum age for which vaccines are available. For everyone else, the pandemic Wild West will continue, with the country hopefully somewhere near the level of immunity that will keep the virus from spreading wildly but with large parts of the population — again, including kids — susceptible to infection.

That really gets at one of the two outstanding questions: How many Americans won’t get the vaccine? If the figure is fairly low, the ability of the virus to spread will be far lower. If it’s high, we have a problem. And that’s the other outstanding question: How big of a problem will the virus be, moving forward?

We know that even as vaccines are being rolled out, cases are slowly climbing. While the number of new infections recorded each day is well off the highs seen in the winter, we’re still averaging more cases on a daily basis than we saw even a month into the third wave that began in September. A lot of people are still getting sick, and, even with most elderly Americans now protected with vaccine, a lot more people will probably die.

Data released by Gallup this week shows that both of the questions posed above share a common component. It is, as you probably suspected, those who are least willing to get vaccinated who are also least likely to take steps to contain the virus.

Gallup asked Americans about their vaccination status, finding that about a fifth had been fully vaccinated and an additional 13 percent partially vaccinated. More than a quarter of respondents, though, said they didn’t plan to get vaccinated. It was those in that latter group who were least likely to say that they were completely or mostly isolating in an effort to prevent the virus spreading.

It was also those skeptics who were least likely to say that, in the past seven days, they had avoided crowds, group gatherings or travel. If you’re not inclined to get vaccinated, it is at least consistent that you would be similarly disinclined to take other steps aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.

Gallup didn’t break out those groups by party, but it’s clear that few of them are Democrats. Data from YouGov, compiled on behalf of Yahoo News, shows that Democrats (and those who voted for Joe Biden in particular) are more likely to say that they have already received a vaccine dose.

Among those who hadn’t yet received a dose, Democrats were far more likely to indicate that they planned to do so as soon as possible. Among Republicans, half of those who haven’t been vaccinated say that they don’t have any plans to do so at all.

One reason is that Republicans are simply less worried about the virus. More than half say that they’re not very worried about it or not worried at all. Among those who voted for Donald Trump, the figure is over two-thirds. By contrast, more than three-quarters of Democrats say that they are at least somewhat worried about the virus.

In the YouGov polling, 60 percent of Republicans say that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. They’re also much more likely to say that restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus — mask mandates, limits on indoor dining — should be lifted immediately.

As we mentioned Thursday, there are two ways to achieve herd immunity. One is fast and safe: widespread vaccinations. The other — people contracting the virus — is slow and dangerous. The path the United States is on will take us to a place where much of the country has opted for the first option and the rest, the latter.

So the question again becomes: How many people will die, both over the short term and the long term, as a result of those choices?

Experts take pro-vaccine message to right-wing skeptics

https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/544809-experts-take-pro-vaccine-message-to-right-wing-skeptics?userid=12325

Stick your vaccine up your arse' – the Covid-19 vaccine, the science and  the sceptics

Top public health experts and officials are developing new strategies to reach out to the conservatives most skeptical of or hesitant about receiving a coronavirus vaccine.

The efforts are targeting supporters of former President Trump, who have emerged as the most significant hurdle to widespread vaccination.

The officials and experts are making appearances on Fox News and Newsmax and taking part on panels with prominent conservative politicians to reach out to vaccine skeptics on the right.

And the public health experts are not taking an antagonistic approach either. They say many conservatives have legitimate questions about COVID-19 vaccinations that are worth listening to and answering.

“These are folks who really feel disrespected. They feel that COVID and the vaccines and the response has been politicized and weaponized, in their words,” said Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Obama. “They feel deeply alienated from the government.”

Up to now, the main problem with increasing vaccinations has been one of supply and demand, but administration officials expect that to change shortly. 

“We are approaching the point where we will have a sufficient supply of vaccines for everybody in the United States to have the chance to get immunized by the end of May,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said in an interview with The Hill on Wednesday. 

At that point, convincing skeptical conservatives to get a shot could mean the difference between the U.S. achieving herd immunity and resuming normal life or variants of COVID-19 getting second and third winds, leading to new lockdowns or restrictions on life.

As Collins puts it, “the hesitancy will begin to become the defining factor on whether we reach herd immunity or not.”

“I think that means this has to be the moment where we really pull into this conversation all of the trustworthy voices,” he added.

A recent CBS poll found a third of Republicans said they would not be vaccinated, compared to 10 percent of Democrats. A “PBS NewsHour” poll showed similar results: Nearly half of U.S. men who identify as Republicans said they have no plans to get vaccinated.

The underlying mistrust comes after a year in which Trump and his allies played down the severity of a virus that has killed more than half a million Americans already. 

Circumstances have conspired to allow that skepticism to grow: The coronavirus arrived later in more rural, conservative enclaves than it did in liberal metropolitan areas like Seattle, New York and Detroit, giving some the sense that they had been locked out of the economy to protect against a virus that was not yet present in their community.

Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who advised the Biden transition team on COVID-19 issues, said she has been surprised to see how political vaccine hesitancy has become.

In the past, Morita said, public health officials have focused on race and ethnicity. “We didn’t really look at politics or political affiliation,” she said.

Morita said her message remains the same, but that she has had to focus on where to deliver it. She recently co-wrote a Fox News op-ed answering some of the common questions about the available COVID-19 vaccines and urging people to get the shots when they’re available.

“Whether you’re a community of color, or whether you’re a conservative, these are the questions that people ask and want to have the answers to before they get vaccinated,” Morita said. “I don’t feel like that’s a shifted message as much as maybe we’re just able to get it into a more conservative news outlet.”

Convincing a group of people who did not vote for the president presents a challenge to a Democratic administration. So President Biden has been outsourcing the message. 

Appearing on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show this week, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he doesn’t shy away from conservative outlets that may not be friendly.

“I say yes to a wide variety of requests. I’ve been on Fox multiple times, so I don’t shy away from that, no,” Fauci said.

Health officials are increasingly convinced that successful messaging is not going to come from politicians or government officials but from doctors, clergy and trusted community leaders.

Last month, Frieden participated in focus groups with vaccine-hesitant Republican voters led by veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz. 

The groups, first reported by The Washington Post, showed vaccine-hesitant conservatives were not swayed by Republican politicians like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — or even by Trump himself. 

Instead, Frieden said, the message that moved the hesitant to the accepting hit closer to home: Their doctors took the vaccine when it was offered.

“You listen to the audience, you understand where they are and you address their concerns. And that’s the same thing we have to do for Trump voters who are reluctant to get vaccinated or African Americans or Latinx or vegans who don’t want to get vaccinated,” Frieden said.

Morita said she thinks the same efforts and resources that go into convincing communities of color should also be directed at conservatives.

“High-level government officials espousing the importance of vaccines and sharing their experiences with it is really important but it’s not sufficient,” Morita said. 

Support for Trump and a distrust of the government is not the only reason conservatives might be reluctant to accept the vaccine. Many are concerned about how quickly the vaccines were developed. 

Still others object on religious grounds, which is where Collins, the NIH director, comes in.

A devout Christian who is open about his faith, Collins has become an ambassador to the faith community. He spends hours a day talking to faith leaders, assuring them of the vaccine’s soundness and science.

Collins told The Hill he frames the decision to get vaccinated in religious terms.

“Is this a love your neighbor moment? Yes, it is,” Collins said. “And whatever faith you are, the Golden Rule seems to apply, and the Golden Rule would say, for your neighbor or for your family, for your neighbors down the street who may be vulnerable, this is something you can do for them.”

A stark global vaccine divide

The vaccine divide: Wealthy nations have 23 jabs for every one in a poorer  country | World News | Sky News

Wealthy nations — including the U.S., the U.K. and the EU — have vaccinated their citizens at a rate of one person per second over the last month, while most developing countries still haven’t administered a single shot, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

Why it matters: As higher-income countries aim to achieve herd immunity in a matter of months, most of the world’s vulnerable people will remain unprotected.

  • Experts say that mutations that may arise while the virus spreads could be a danger to us all, vaccinated or not.

The big picture: Even though more vaccines will arrive in developing nations soon, only 3% of people in those countries are likely to be vaccinated by mid-2021.

  • At best, only a fifth of their population will be vaccinated by the end of the year, per the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

What we’re watching: Three dozen countries have bought several times the amount of vaccine that they’ll need to vaccinate their entire population.

  • The U.S. alone has ordered more than a billion extra dosesScience Magazine reports. Global health leaders are saying it’s time to figure out where all of these excess doses will go.
  • “Over the next year or two, U.S. surplus doses and those from other countries could add up to enough to immunize everyone in the many poorer nations that lack any secured COVID-19 vaccine,” Science writes.

The danger of a fourth wave

Change in new COVID-19 cases in the past week

Percent change of the 7-day average of new cases

on Feb. 23 and March 2, 2021

The U.S. could be in danger of a fourth coronavirus wave - Axios

The U.S. may be on the verge of another surge in coronavirus cases, despite weeks of good news.

The big picture: Nationwide, progress against the virus has stalled. And some states are ditching their most important public safety measures even as their outbreaks are getting worse.

Where it stands: The U.S. averaged just under 65,000 new cases per day over the past week. That’s essentially unchanged from the week before, ending a six-week streak of double-digit improvements.

  • Although the U.S. has been moving in the right direction, 65,000 cases per day is not a number that indicates the virus is under control. It’s the same caseload the U.S. was seeing last July, at the height of the summer surge in cases and deaths.

What we’re watching: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday rescinded the state’s mask mandate and declared that businesses will be able to operate at full capacity, saying risk-mitigation measures are no longer necessary because of the progress on vaccines.

  • But the risk in Texas is far from over. In fact, its outbreak is growing: New cases in the state rose by 27% over the past week.
  • Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also scrapped all business restrictions, along with the state’s mask mandate, on Tuesday. New cases in Mississippi were up 62% over the past week, the biggest jump of any state.
  • The daily average of new daily cases also increased in eight more states, in addition to Mississippi and Texas.

How it works: If Americans let their guard down too soon, we could experience yet another surge — a fourth wave — before the vaccination campaign has had a chance to do its work.

  • The vaccine rollout is moving at breakneck speed. The U.S. should have enough doses for every adult who wants one by May, President Biden said this week.
  • At the same time, however, more contagious variants of the coronavirus are continuing to gain ground, meaning that people who haven’t gotten their vaccines yet may be spreading and contracting the virus even more easily than before.

What’s next: The bigger a foothold those variants can get, the harder it will be to escape COVID-19 — now or in the future.

  • The existing vaccines appear to be less effective against two variants, discovered in South Africa and Brazil, which means the virus could keep circulating even in a world where the vast majority of people are vaccinated.
  • And that means it’s increasingly likely that COVID-19 will never fully go away — that outbreaks may flare up here and there for years, requiring vaccine booster shots as well as renewed protective measures.

The bottom line: Variants emerge when viruses spread widely, which is also how people die.

  • Whatever “the end of the pandemic” looks like — however good it’s possible for things to get — the way to get there is through ramping up vaccinations and continuing to control the virus through masks and social distancing. Not doing those things will only make the future worse.
  • “Getting as many people vaccinated as possible is still the same answer and the same path forward as it was on December 1 or January 1 … but the expected outcome isn’t the same,” Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego, told Reuters.

A somber milestone on the path to brighter days ahead

https://mailchi.mp/05e4ff455445/the-weekly-gist-february-26-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

U.S. tops 500,000 COVID-19 deaths | PBS NewsHour

Although the nation reached a grim and long-dreaded milestone on Monday, surpassing 500,000 lives lost to COVID—more than were killed in two World Wars and the Vietnam conflict combined—the news this week was mostly good, as key indicators of the pandemic’s severity continued to rapidly improve.

Over the past two weeks, hospitalizations for COVID were down 30 percent, deaths were down 22 percent, and new cases declined by 32 percent—the lowest levels since late October. This week’s numbers declined somewhat more slowly than last week’s, leading Dr. Rachel Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to caution people against letting their guard down just yet: “Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions.” Of particular concern are new variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in numerous states, including one in New York and another in California, that may be more contagious than the original virus.
 
The best news of the week was surely a report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluating the new, single-shot COVID vaccine from Johnson & Johnson (J&J), showing it to be highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death caused by COVID, including variants. On Friday, a panel of outside experts met to assess whether to approve the J&J vaccine for emergency use, which would make it the third in the nation’s arsenal of COVID vaccines. If approved, the vaccine will be rolled out next week, according to the White House, with up to 4M doses available immediately.

The sooner the better: new data show that since vaccinations began in late December, new cases among nursing home residents have fallen more than 80 percent—a hopeful glimpse at the future that lies ahead for the general population once vaccines become widely available.