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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

When Will Ohio Reach Herd Immunity?

As COVID-19 cases are declining in Ohio, new research suggests Ohio will not reach herd immunity until November.

Health officials announced Monday that nearly 39 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, but many wonder if Ohio will reach the benchmark for herd immunity of at least 70 percent.

That’s when enough of the population is immune to COVID-19 that new infections are unlikely and when some experts say there could be a full return to normalcy.

Researchers from the non-partisan, non-profit research group APM Research Lab analyzed vaccination trends from the first two weeks of May and found if these rates persist, it could take six months before Ohio reaches at least 70 percent of the population vaccinated.

The data analyzed does not include the state’s recent uptick in vaccinations in mid-May after new vaccine incentives were announced, including a lottery and scholarships to college. 

According to the study, Ohio ranks 33rd in immunizations compared to other states, with just 44 percent of the population receiving at least one dose of the vaccine.

Vaccine Hesitancy, Lack Of Urgency To Blame

If Ohio's vaccination rate had remained the same as it was in December, when vaccines were first available, the state would likely have reached herd immunity in September, according to the report.

The state’s vaccination rate, though, stalled in early May.

What is unknown is how the recent spike in people getting the shot, after Gov. Mike DeWine announced a million-dollar vaccine lottery, will impact the numbers. 

Dr. Brook Watts, chief medical officer of community and public health at MetroHealth, has heard people mention the Vax-a-Million lottery incentive in recent vaccine clinics in the hospital system.

The lottery seems to have encouraged people who were undecided about the shot to make an appointment, she said.

"This was just maybe the moment to get them over that last hump, just to go ahead and schedule an appointment and show up. It was just enough of a nudge," Watts added.

Still, the decline in vaccine interest in late April and early May is holding the state back, said Mark Cameron, infectious disease researcher at Case Western Reserve University.

“Vaccine hesitancy is certainly a part of it, and that did grow after the Johnson and Johnson pause, while they looked at some of the adverse events caused by that particular vaccine,” Cameron said.

The decline in vaccinations may also be tied to the state’s current COVID-19 case rate, he added. Cases are trending down, with just 727 new cases reported Tuesday, according to state data.

“I think there’s also a sense that maybe the worst of this pandemic is behind us, and the sense of urgency has been affected,” Cameron said.

Neighboring states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan, are ahead of Ohio in reaching the herd immunity benchmark. More than half of Pennsylvanians have received at least one dose, ranking ninth out of the states, and Michigan is on track to reach 70 percent vaccinated in October.

These states may have had a more unified, top-to-bottom approach for vaccine distribution, Cameron said.

Ohio is not the worst off, however. Sixteen states, including areas of the South and Northwest regions of the U.S., are not on track to reach 70 percent vaccinations until 2022, according to the data.

Additionally, states that President Joe Biden won in the 2020 election were more likely to have higher percentages of the population vaccinated, while those that went for Donald Trump, like Ohio, were lower, according to the analysis.

“It’s falling on political lines, at some level,” said Watts at MetroHealth. “In my mind, it doesn’t change anything, because it still means all the things that we’re doing, we need to keep doing … no matter the ‘why’.”

While Ohio lags behind other states in reaching herd immunity, the state ranked highly in vaccine distribution, meaning state officials are doing a good job at allocating doses to clinics where there is high uptake, Cameron added.

Ohio Drawing On Lottery, Adolescents For Some Hope

The key to increasing vaccine uptake, Watts said, is persistence.

“Every person is different,” she said. “I think [the strategy] is respectful conversations, I think it’s access to medical professionals that you trust, I think it’s making it easy and accessible, making sure people who work do have access, off hours and on weekends … I think it’s ‘yes and’ and all of those above.”

Cameron at Case thinks it is important to have open, honest conversations with people on a personal level.

“Are their families vaccinated? Are their friends vaccinated? Those type of stories that they hear from their families – ‘we’re relieved, we can go out, we don’t fear the virus anymore, my arm hurt for 24 hours and that was it’ – that type of thing becomes very personal for them,” he said.

Watts has also observed an increase in people getting the vaccine to protect vulnerable populations.

“There’s been many people who may have been more hesitant to get vaccinated that are coming in now because they’re seeing this personal responsibility to protect their loved ones,” she said.

Watts is also optimistic that young teens will play a big role in getting Ohio to herd immunity now that they are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.

“We are seeing a lot of teenagers … and in some cases, I will tell you, the kids are getting vaccinated and their parents might not be there yet,” she said. “There’s an opportunity here, and I feel like we’re already seeing it, that the kids are really going to help us lead the way.”

While reaching herd immunity is a good goal, Watts said, it may be ultimately unrealistic, and there are still many unknowns about the virus and vaccines. Instead, we should focus on vaccinating as many people as is feasible to slow the spread of COVID-19, she said.

“We don’t understand how well vaccination and having had COVID – how long is that going to last? Are we going to need boosters? And then we also are still learning about how well a prior infection and other things prevent transmission. So these are all things that go into this idea of herd immunity,” she said.

The report was released May 18, 2021.

Copyright 2021 WCPN