In recent weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have dropped dramatically across the country.
While at the beginning of September the U.S. was averaging around 160,000 new coronavirus cases each day, that figure is now just over 90,000 and trending downward, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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So is the nation finally approaching herd immunity?
On Sunday, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci struck a note of caution on CNN.
“It’s certainly going in the right direction – that’s the good news. And hopefully it is going to continue to go in that trajectory downward,” said Fauci. “But we have to just be careful that we don’t prematurely declare victory. … We still have around 68 million people who are eligible to be vaccinated that have not yet gotten vaccinated.”
According to Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease specialist at UChicago Medicine where she leads its infection control and prevention efforts, the situation is a little more complex than simply whether or not the nation is finally reaching herd immunity.
“I think what’s happening as we go through this pandemic is that things are becoming more and more local,” said Landon. “The vast majority of Americans have gotten a vaccine shot … (and) you can start to see that there are certainly parts of this country that are reaching herd immunity. But that herd immunity is sort of a moving target. If your immunity is because you have immunity to the delta variant of the virus but someday another variant comes along, you can lose, your herd immunity.”
Dr. Evelyn Figueroa, professor of clinical family medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, says that she has seen a drop in the number of COVID-19 patients at UI Health since the imposition of vaccine mandates.
“Several weeks ago, we had around 30 patients in the hospital sick with COVID,” said Figueroa. “And it is half right now what it was just three weeks ago. So, it’s definitely much better.”
Figueroa said that UI Health lost 10 patients to COVID-19 in September – mostly people who were not vaccinated. She says that the rapid spread of the delta variant has changed how public health officials view the possibility of reaching herd immunity.
“We had assumed that 70% was the herd immunity amount, but that was really before the delta variant,” said Figueroa, who is also director of the UIC family medicine residency program and executive director of the Pilsen Food Pantry. “The delta virus spreads outside when you’re unmasked. The delta virus is different. It’s more highly communicable and it has mutated and gotten smarter and smarter because we’ve given it so much time.”
For front-line healthcare workers, successive waves of the virus have taken their toll. And the refusal of some people to get vaccinated is adding to the frustration of over-stressed doctors and nurses, says Figueroa.
“I do know that we’re all very tired, and it has been very challenging at this point to talk to people that do not want to get vaccinated because we know at this point it’s not an access issue,” said Figueroa. “And that is very frustrating.”