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Health & Science

Herd Immunity Is At Risk If Many People In U.S. Say 'No' To Vaccine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden now says every adult in the U.S. should be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine by April 19. More than 168 million doses have been administered - that's according to the CDC - but cases are rising. After touring a vaccination site in Virginia yesterday, the president said getting vaccine shots to everyone is the best way to stop the spread. But he cautioned, this is not the time to get complacent.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The virus is spreading because we have too many people who see the end in sight, think we're at the finish line already. But let me be deadly earnest with you. We aren't at the finish line.

MARTIN: Public health experts are saying there are still a lot of people saying no to the vaccine. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on how hesitancy and misinformation could prolong the pandemic.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Ali Mokdad tracks the coronavirus for a living, and he says the way out of this pandemic is clear.

ALI MOKDAD: We need to vaccinate as much as possible right now to stop the circulation of this virus in the U.S. and elsewhere. Don't allow it to mutate, then we can control it.

BRUMFIEL: Reaching the point at which the virus stops circulating easily is sometimes called herd immunity. Mokdad, who works for the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, says most experts think reaching herd immunity is going to require a large majority of Americans to get vaccinated. But in a recent NPR/Marist poll, nearly 1 in 3 said they were either unsure about the vaccines or that they would refuse one if offered. Mokdad believes this hesitation could mean the current public vaccination campaign will start running out of arms for its shots.

MOKDAD: Hesitancy is going to be a big problem for us in May, June simply because we will have more vaccines than people who are willing to take the vaccine.

BRUMFIEL: It's hard to know exactly how many people will actually turn down a vaccine if offered. But right now, there appears to be a gap between the number of people who want the shot and the number who need to get it for the U.S. to reach herd immunity.

Samuel Scarpino models the coronavirus epidemic at Northeastern University.

SAMUEL SCARPINO: What most of us want is safe return to something that looks more normal. And that, to me, means 80, 85% probably vaccinated. We can't get there right now.

BRUMFIEL: Too many people are saying no. Scarpino predicts this problem won't show up right away. He and Mokdad both expect COVID cases to drop over the summer months, when a combination of vaccinations and warm weather will dramatically slow the virus down.

SCARPINO: My concern at this stage is the fall.

BRUMFIEL: If vaccination rates remain too low, he says, COVID will return, especially since roughly 20% of the population are children who are not yet eligible to get vaccinated. His models show vaccination will help keep the disease under control nationally, but regional outbreaks could still be possible, especially in communities where vaccination rates are lowest.

SCARPINO: It will be heavily buffered, but we will still have large outbreaks of COVID.

BRUMFIEL: Large enough, he worries, to strain hospitals and maybe force closures of schools and other activities in different parts of the United States.

NPR's polling shows that a diverse swath of Americans don't want to get vaccinated. While the numbers are highest for Republican men, many others say they'll refuse the shot. It's a mistake to think that just one part of society is refusing vaccines, says Kolina Koltai. She studies vaccine misinformation at the University of Washington.

KOLINA KOLTAI: It's literally everyone. And this says that, like, everyone knows someone in their life who is not willing to get vaccinated.

BRUMFIEL: And Koltai says that online misinformation about vaccines is making the problem much more difficult.

KOLTAI: For the first time in a very long time, we have everyone deciding this decision, whether or not they're going to vaccinate themselves as an adult. And so we're all becoming susceptible to anti-vaccine narratives that could be promoted in ways that are beyond anti-vaccination communities.

BRUMFIEL: Last week, the Biden administration launched a major initiative to counter those narratives. It's trying to enlist faith groups, unions and others to promote vaccination within their communities. It's the kind of broad, grassroots effort experts like Koltai say is needed to encourage the reluctant to get a shot. The question is, will it be enough?

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.