Written by Steven Burns
From his column To Your Health
For more than a year, we have been talking nearly nonstop about a virus. The virus, SARS-CoV-2, causes the disease COVID-19. It has changed our world in so many ways, and most of those changes have been tragic. My wife, a pastor, recently received a message from a minister in India asking for food donations, as they are experiencing a huge surge in Covid cases. It would be foolish to think the pandemic is over.
But, there is light at the end of the tunnel. With vaccinations, we may eventually reach “herd immunity.” That is when enough people have either received a vaccine or achieved natural resistance. Then, like a fire with the oxygen removed, the pandemic will burn out.
At this writing, there have been 148 million cases worldwide, with 3.12 million deaths. 85.7 million are considered “recovered.” Although vaccination immunity is much stronger, re-infection for those who have had the disease is not common.
A Danish study showed that people under age 65 who have had the virus had an 80% protection rate against re-infection, while people over 65 had 47%. Re-infection was defined as a repeated positive test following infection and a subsequent negative test. In other words, people who had the virus, then cleared it, got it again only rarely. So far, death from COVID-19 after either re-infection or vaccination is incredibly rare.
Best estimates are that we need to achieve 80% vaccination coverage to reach herd immunity; however, herd immunity may come sooner if those who have already recovered can sustain long-term immunity.
Where are we now, and how can we make sure the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train? The immunity resulting from infection lasts at least three months, and is not as good as the immunity provided by a vaccine. So far, vaccine immunity has been shown to last at least six months. We don’t have projections beyond that, because vaccines have only existed for about that long. So far, we don’t know whether the vaccines for COVID-19 will be like a polio vaccine, good for most of our lives, or like a flu vaccine, needed every year. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla recently said it's possible people will need to get vaccinated annually for the coronavirus. One thing we do know is that those who have been vaccinated can safely resume a lot of normal activities.
We can hug our grandkids without a mask and without them having been vaccinated. We can travel, although we should limit air travel as much as possible. As I noted above, immunity is very good but not absolute, so avoiding unnecessary exposure (like being in a tin can with 150 other people breathing the same air) is still essential, at least until we reach the point of herd immunity. We can be around other families, especially those in which the adults have been vaccinated without masking or socially distancing. But we should avoid large unmasked crowds indoors with poor ventilation.
We will still see flares of the disease, as is happening right now in the upper Midwest. We will still see deaths, even though they have been dropping like a stone. In our state (Arizona) we just went two days with no COVID-19 deaths. Imagine being happy about such a statistic two years ago!
There is hope. We always have hope in Christ Jesus, and we know that our salvation is real and that we have life beyond this world. But we should work to improve the world we live in now. If we are to follow Jesus’ call to “go into all the world and preach the gospel,” we need to do what we can to make sure others are alive to hear the Good News. Taking steps to stop the spread of disease will enable some to hear the message who would not otherwise.
Steven C. Burns, MD, is board-certified in family medicine and has been in practice for more than 30 years.
Opinions expressed are his own.