ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Herd immunity to the coronavirus is within reach, health officials say, but the struggle is trying to educate people who have already decided against getting the vaccine and encourage them to change their minds.
Community or herd immunity — when a certain percentage of the population is immune to COVID-19 — is what health officials are working toward with mass vaccine distributions across the world with varying strategies aimed at making the shots accessible.
However, health officials worry it’s possible some communities will never reach the desired 70 to 80% immunity needed to reach that goal if enough people do not get vaccinated. The struggle now is convincing people who have already made up their minds to re-consider getting the vaccine. The lowest vaccine rates continue to be among the younger population 16 and older, data shows.
Orange County Health Officer with Florida Department of Health Dr. Raul Pino said herd immunity could look different for some communities depending on certain factors.
“Many of our scientists are saying that somewhere between 70 and 85% of the population could be the magic number,” Pino said, adding it will be difficult to get to 70% and it will not be over several weeks but a long period of time.
In Orange County, 44.5% of residents over 16 have had at least one dose of the vaccine.
After the initial wave of vaccinations getting over the 50% plateau will be tough, Pino said. About 25% of individuals in surveys conducted around Orange County said they don’t want to get the vaccine.
“If you have decided already that that’s not the case. Then we will have a lot of work and education to do to be able to change their minds,” Pino said.
It’s a race against time as COVID-19 variants that could more easily spread continue to pop up here in Central Florida and around the world. Health officials agree vaccination is the best way to fend off new, potentially more dangerous variants.
People who are fully vaccinated can still become infected with the disease — just like if you get the flu shot and still get influenza — but the coronavirus vaccine shots significantly reduce the risk of potentially severe cases or death.
Pino said, in Orange County of the 117 “breakthrough cases” of fully vaccinated people who later acquired the virus none of them have died.
“One of the arguments is that the vaccine prevents death and severe disease, and I think in those (breakthrough) cases it worked,” Pino said. “Remember immunity from this vaccine or many vaccines is not up to 100%, so always a number of individuals could develop disease because they haven’t, for whatever reason, have not developed full immunity.”
In an effort to boost vaccine numbers among the county’s youngest eligible population the health department is partnering with schools to host vaccine events. Last week, 1,500 people were vaccinated at four Orange County high schools. The county also continues to move mobile vaccine sites around to different communities.
“We just have to make it convenient, and that’s something that we’re endeavoring to do by now, strategizing and working with our Magic Gyms, and then the mobile unit will be strategically moved throughout the county, and we are partnering with some other grassroots organizations to do some pod vaccinations,” Demings said. “Stay encouraged. People who want to get vaccinated have the opportunity to do so.”
Four Orange County-Orlando Magic Recreation Centers are now also offering 1,000 Pfizer vaccine shots a day at Goldenrod, Meadow Woods, South Econ and West Orange locations, including during the weekend which could help people who can’t take off to get vaccinated.
Pino said the health department is working with employers around the county, including the hotel industry, to go to more places of work with the vaccine.
“These are people who work two or three jobs, sometimes get up at six o’clock and get home by nine o’clock, so we have to offer that flexibility so that we can get as many people as possible,” he said.
But at the end of the day, there is no substitute for personal responsibility, Orange County’s top doctor said.
“Because if someone doesn’t want to get the vaccine we will not be able to give it,” Pino said. “They just have to want it.”