It’s a huge number: 155 million people. That number - which exceeds the entire population of Russia - is the number of people in the U.S. who have yet to get even one dose of vaccine against the novel coronavirus. It’s also the number of people who are potentially still susceptible to getting sick – some severely so and even dying – from COVID-19.
And yet the mood in much of the nation is that the disease is behind us. States are reopening with crowds returning to bars and restaurants. Even some U.S. lawmakers are pushing for lifting mask rules for air and rail travel.
But several health experts say we’re far from winning the battle with the novel coronavirus that’s so far been blamed for killing more than 600,000 Americans. Or, to put that second sum in perspective: more than the entire population of the city of Milwaukee.
Despite the rollout of three vaccines – and a potential fourth one on the way – the U.S. is still far from reaching the levels of vaccination experts say would achieve so-called herd immunity. That's when enough people are immune to the virus that it can no longer readily spread, even to those with no prior immunity. Indeed, the nation is still seeing a steady flow of infections with a 7-day moving average of about 11,400 cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While that number is a vast improvement over months ago, some states, such as Missouri and Arkansas, are seeing a new rise in infections.
“I won’t mince words: I think that it’s too early for the U.S. to be just going back to normal and tossing away masks and treating this like it’s gone,” said Dr. Otto O. Yang, an infectious disease expert and medical doctor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, during a phone interview. Yang likens the situation in the U.S. to that of a boxing match in which one fighter is exhausted and leaning on the ropes and the other pompously thinks he's won the match.
“That’s not the time to stop and celebrate. That’s the time to double-down and take that opponent out,” said Yang.
Instead, much of the nation is popping open the champagne, letting off fireworks and trashing their masks -- even as the novel coronavirus silently finds thousands of new bodies each day to infect.
Yang is also critical of policy by the CDC that he says favors the vaccinated -- and those who claim to be vaccinated -- while leaving those who’ve yet to get shots – such as children who are too young – and people with compromised immune systems, “out in the cold.”
“It’s kind of like saying that people who don’t have STDs can stop using condoms,” said Yang. “It just doesn’t work. There’s no way to know who’s been vaccinated.”
Another prominent doctor, Dr. Archana Chatterjee, an expert on vaccines and a pediatric infectious diseases specialist and dean of the Chicago Medical School, is also cautious about going back to normal so soon.
“Everything related to COVID … is complex,” Chatterjee said during a phone interview. On the one hand, Chatterjee said, most experts agree that around 70% of people should have some sort of immunity to COVID-19 to get the pandemic under control. On the other hand, she said, while that’s far higher than the current rate of vaccination, it’s unknown how many people have been naturally infected with the virus and thus are likely protected from severe disease. In addition, she said, it’s important to avoid looking at total vaccination rates without looking at how those shots are distributed across the country. Some states like Illinois, California or Massachusetts have higher rates of vaccination, while others, such as South and North Dakota, Mississippi and Alabama, have lower levels.
“We know that this disease spreads in populations that do not have immunity, so there can be these hot spots, as they are called, where the immunization rates are much lower, and that’s where vulnerable populations are. … So what’s happening locally is very important.”
In addition, said Chatterjee, the rise of the so-called delta variant, which some experts fear is more infectious than other variants, puts people who have not been vaccinated at a higher risk.
These two factors that Chatterjee describes are now playing out in certain areas of the U.S. Health officials in Springfield, Mo., for example, recently called on more residents to get vaccinated because of a rise in cases with the delta variant.
“It’s making people so sick. And killing our loved ones,” said Katie Towns, the assistant director of health of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department in a series of Twitter posts over the weekend.
Other nations with rates of vaccinations that are high but not yet at herd immunity levels are also seeing problems. The United Kingdom, for example, is seeing an uptick in cases despite around 64% of the population getting at least one COVID shot -- a far higher level than in the U.S. in which only around 53% have been at least partially vaccinated.
Now, as vaccination rates slip, the U.S. looks on track to continue its slow-burn of infections, or worse.
"The U.S. isn't out of the woods yet,” Zoë Hyde, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the University of Western Australia, told TheStreet in an email. “Coverage is good, but not yet at herd immunity levels. I really do worry that delta is going to catch people by surprise over there."
This story has been updated.