Vaccinations key to losing pandemic restrictions

The answer to possibly the most asked question during the last year – “How much longer do I have to wear mask in public” — will depend on herd immunity.

Herd immunity occurs when enough people become immune to a disease to make its spread unlikely. As a result, the entire community is protected, even those who are not themselves immune. Herd immunity is usually achieved through vaccination, but it can also occur through natural infection.

Dr. Elizabeth Kidder, The Chautauqua Center medical provider, said once 70% to 75% of county residents are vaccinated then herd immunity should be present in the community.

“It depends on how quickly we can get the population in the county vaccinated,” Kidder said about potentially not being required to wear mask in public. “Until we have a great majority of the population vaccinated, we will still have to wear mask.”

Dr. Michael Faulk, county physician, agreed that once more people are vaccinated, COVID-19 restrictions might be lowered.

“The sooner we get the vast majority of the eligible population vaccinated, the sooner more of these restrictions will be relaxed, the sooner we can feel more comfortable getting back together with our families and the sooner we can get our kids back in the classroom,” he said. “In my mind these are top priorities and first steps and will provide the foundation for which we rebuild our social and community interactions. The Chautauqua County Health Department, our county hospitals and pharmacies will continue to vaccinate as quickly as they are supplied vaccine.”

Faulk said currently there is a much higher demand for the vaccines than there is availability, but the momentum of vaccine production and distribution is steadily increasing.

“With the recent (emergency use authorization) for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, this should pick up even faster,” he said. “As more of our population gets vaccinated, I anticipate a step-by-step transition away from the current restrictions as we move into summer. Thankfully, over the last couple of weeks we are finally seeing COVID numbers dramatically decrease after a difficult December and January, but it cannot mean we let our guard down quite yet. COVID is still active in the county and there are many vulnerable, unvaccinated individuals.”

Kidder said possibly by late spring or even early summer public gatherings with fewer restrictions on capacity might be a possibility.

“The ability to gather outdoors in certain settings if we continue on a good pace of vaccinations could be possible by late spring or early summer,” she said. “If we get a good majority vaccinated, those public events are much more likely possible in the future.”

Faulk said everyone wants outdoor activities like concerts, weddings, sports events, parades and summer celebrations to resume after being limited during the last year.

“I think a couple things need to happen before we think about safely allowing these types of events,” he said. “One, we must ensure that everyone who wants vaccinated, gets the vaccine. Two, scientists gather more data regarding the ongoing protection from the vaccine. This will be more clear over the next six months. We currently know it is uncommon to be reinfected before three months after receiving the vaccine, but experts do not know right now how long the immune response will protect us from COVID illness. I believe there is significant optimism brewing, however. Three, if testing is going to be required for larger gatherings, it must be easily accessible to those who want it and it must be affordable. Across the country, testing remains unpredictable and at times unavailable. I can see us making some progress as we move towards summer, but again, the allowable capacity limits will increase incrementally with social distancing and masking likely to continue.”

Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel said he is hopeful outdoor gatherings might start again this spring. He said state officials are already looking at the possibility of reopening amusement parks.

“The numbers were lowered during June, July and August last year. We didn’t see a surge until we started moving people back inside and during the holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas),” he said. “I really believe we will start to see group gatherings in the next couple of months. I hope by Memorial Day we will start to see more outdoor gatherings. I feel confident there will be a change in the guidance as spring time comes.”


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