Is herd immunity still a realistic goal?

More than half of Pennsylvanians have now received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine but reaching herd immunity may no longer be a realistic goal. Experts say vaccine hesitancy and the presence of more contagious variants are largely to blame.

Herd immunity happens when enough people are vaccinated or have been infected and developed antibodies to prevent the virus from spreading.

Governor Tom Wolf sounded optimistic this afternoon when asked when Pennsylvania could reopen.

“We’re talking about it every day and I want to go as fast as I can,” Wolf said.

Initially the thought was it couldn’t happen until herd immunity is reached. But now experts say that thinking needs to change.

“We’re going to need to refocus on hospitalizations and deaths as the appropriate end points,” Allegheny Health Network Internal Medicine Physician Dr. Marc Itskowitz.

Herd immunity requires a vast majority of people being vaccinated or developing COVID-19 antibodies after an infection.

But Itskowitz agrees vaccine hesitancy combined with rapidly spreading variants are taking a toll.

“Where we ultimately land, we’re not sure yet. But it’s going to be hard to get to that 75 percent or 80 percent threshold that we were hoping,” he said.

That means COVI-19 is likely here to stay. Experts are hopeful enough people will get vaccinated that we’ll eventually see a far less lethal version of the virus, which has already killed more than 26,000 Pennsylvanians.

Which would lead to a return to life with fewer restrictions, possibly sooner rather than later.

“I’m still optimistic we can get to a point where we can get back to a point where life is normal. Whatever you call that, that’s what I want to do,” Wolf said.

Pennsylvania crossing the 50 percent threshold for vaccinations is a significant milestone. But experts say now the hard work begins to convince people on the fence to get vaccinated.