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Joyce Ann Kraner is eager for the pandemic to end and for life to get back to normal. Kraner, 49, wants to be able to hug her mother, who lives in a nursing home.
But she says she has no plans to get the vaccine, even though it’s widely available in her community of Murfreesboro, Tenn. “I feel like I’m healthy,” she says.
Despite the fact that millions of people have been vaccinated safely, Kraner worries about complications. She believes some people are having “life-threatening reactions” to the vaccine that the media aren’t reporting. (Many such reports shared on social media are false or misleading.) And she’s worried because it’s so new: “We don’t know the long-term effects. We don’t know what it’s going to do.”
A recent NPR/Marist poll found that one in four Americans said they would refuse a coronavirus vaccine outright if offered. Another 5% are “undecided” about whether they would get the shot. Although the numbers were highest for Republican men and residents of rural areas, there were still a significant number of people across all ages and demographic groups who claim they will say “no.”
Now some researchers are increasingly worried that this reticence will be enough to prevent the nation from reaching what’s known as herd immunity, the point at which the coronavirus can no longer spread easily through the population and transmission peters out. Reaching high levels of vaccination would mean new outbreaks of the coronavirus would die down quickly, as opposed to growing and spreading.
“Vaccine hesitancy is a big problem for all of us,” says Ali Mokdad, who tracks coronavirus trends at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Up until now, the nationwide vaccine campaign has seen demand outstrip supply, but Mokdad says he believes that will soon change. By May, he believes, “We will have more vaccines than people willing to take the vaccine.”
It’s hard to know exactly how many people will choose not to get vaccinated. NPR/Marist’s polling has seen the number of people saying they would refuse a vaccine drop since the question was first asked in August, and it continues to fall.
What it will take to return to “normal”
The numbers who may refuse the vaccine remain potentially too high to contain a respiratory virus such as SARS-CoV-2, which requires a large segment of the population to be immune. Nobody knows exactly how large, but based on other diseases, researchers believe it is far above the current 32% of the U.S. population that’s gotten at least one shot to date.
“What most of us want is a safe return to something that looks more normal,” says Samuel Scarpino, who models the coronavirus outbreak at Northeastern University. “That to me means 80% to 85%, probably, vaccinated.”
There remain many obstacles to the U.S. getting to the roughly 80% immunity threshold — and some unknowns. It’s unclear, for example, how many of those who say they will refuse a shot are immune because they’ve already had COVID-19. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people who already had an infection to get vaccinated anyway, so many COVID-19 survivors will also be in the “yes” camp.)
And roughly 20% of the population are children under the age of 16, who are not yet eligible to receive a vaccine — making it even more crucial that adults do get vaccinated.
But based on current polling data, Scarpino says that the tipping point for herd immunity for the virus remains out of reach: “We can’t get there right now.”
A new emergency in the making
Scarpino and Mokdad say the problem will not be immediately apparent. Both scientists expect…