In December, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that at least 70% of adults, or about 4.7 million residents, would need to be fully vaccinated for the state to reach herd immunity — the nirvana of infection control in which a virus can no longer find enough hosts and fades away. More than 4.5 million were fully vaccinated as of Sunday — but the consensus now among many health experts is that herd immunity is unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Vaccine hesitancy among a significant portion of the population, the ability of the virus to mutate into more contagious variants and vaccine distribution problems across the globe are among the many reasons why the threshold for herd immunity may be much greater than the initial 70% goals set in New Jersey and the U.S.
New Jersey is now enjoying a return to normalcy, with most restrictions on gatherings and business operations having been lifted in recent weeks due in no small part to the 9.5 million vaccine doses administered across the state that have helped cut daily COVID-19 case numbers dramatically. But if COVID is going to linger, as now is expected, what does the immediate and long-term future look like for a state as densely populated and as hard-hit as New Jersey?
Experts say localized spikes in COVID cases will be the norm in communities with low vaccination rates. Spikes may continue to be seen seasonally when the weather cools, people head indoors and the likelihood of transmission increases. Booster shots may be needed as questions persist on how long the three major vaccines are able to maintain their effectiveness. As long as COVID-19 exists, it will inevitably mutate into more variants, some of which may be immune to vaccines already on the market. That would likely necessitate a recurring shot — similar to an annual flu shot.
“Cities, towns and counties with low vaccination rates can still be visited by the pandemic even if the U.S. overall is at 70% or more,” said Troy Tassier, an economics epidemiology professor at Fordham University. “But the larger the share of vaccinated people, the smaller the outbreaks will be.”
Nationwide, emergency department visits, hospital admissions, and deaths have plummeted — especially among older Americans — since the vaccination campaign began in December, a report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. The same has been seen in New Jersey, where hospitalizations are down 84%, cases are down 97% and the daily death toll is now in the single digits after seeing 70 to 90 a day in early January.
“We are in a much better place than we’ve been at any time during the pandemic,” said Anuj Shah, a Passaic County cardiologist who treats COVID patients.
“As optimistic as I am, I know COVID is not over. There are just too many variables to consider, too many unknowns. COVID is not something that will just go away after six months of vaccinations,” Shah warns.