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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Charlotte Braces For A Future Without COVID Herd Immunity

COVID-19 vaccine novant file 1
Courtesy Novant Health
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A health care worker draws a vaccine dose at a Novant Health COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Spectrum Center on Feb. 13.

When the coronavirus first emerged last year, Dr. Andy Dyksterhouse didn’t think it would be around for long. He thought the virus would last through the summer and maybe into the fall.

But Dyksterhouse, a physician at Gaston County’s South Point Family Practice, had what he called an “Oh shoot, oh no, aha moment” around January of this year when COVID-19 cases were surging in California.

He said he thought, “We’re doing the best we can. We’re trying as hard as we can. We think we’re doing the right things. Yet, despite it, the virus continues to be present and affecting our lives.”

Now, Dyksterhouse is among many Charlotte-area health care providers and officials preparing for the coronavirus’ continued presence in North Carolina and across the United States. Many health experts have said herd immunity, or the point at which enough people are protected from the virus, appears unlikely.

“We probably are not going to get there,” Dyksterhouse said.

Slowing Vaccination Rates

Herd immunity can be reached if a certain percentage of the population is protected from the virus either by getting vaccinated or by developing antibodies after getting infected. Experts disagree on the exact threshold, but some have said it would need to be as high as 90%.

In North Carolina, nearly 10% of the population is known to have been infected, and health experts said the actual number of infections could be two or three times higher. But that still means that vaccines will have to do most of the work — and vaccination rates across the state are slowing.

Roughly half of residents statewide have received at least one dose, according to state health department numbers. Gov. Roy Cooper has set the goal of getting at least two-thirds of North Carolinians vaccinated by June 1. But between May 1 and May 3, state data show the percentage of adults vaccinated only increased by less than 1% each day.

In Mecklenburg County, county data show that roughly 40% of residents have gotten at least one dose. But in April, the number of vaccinated people in the county increased by an average of just 4% every week.

‘I Don’t Think We Can Focus On Getting To Zero’

“I think deep down, we always knew from the beginning that there was a significant chance that a virus like this was never completely eradicated,” said Dr. Meg Sullivan, medical director at Mecklenburg County Public Health.

Sullivan said people at her agency have been reframing their thinking.

“I don’t think we can focus on getting to zero cases,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s focusing on getting as many people vaccinated as possible, doing the things we know that work and trying to get the virus at as low a level as possible.”

Mecklenburg’s health department could soon add a more permanent team to handle the agency’s coronavirus response, health director Gibbie Harris indicated April 29.

Harris told reporters that officials were “having internal conversations ... about how we might 'normalize COVID' within our department,” including “bringing in some additional resources so that staff can actually get back to some of the work that they were hired to do.”

Sullivan said that if COVID-19 is not eliminated entirely, residents should expect to get booster shots to protect against the coronavirus — maybe even as part of a regular check-up.

“This is what public health does," Sullivan said. "We provide vaccines. We talk about, ‘Let’s get your COVID shot. Get your flu shot. Get up to date with all of the others.’ As we think about what COVID in the future is, it’s just more of those public health prevention measures that we know.”

‘Heartbreaking’

For many area doctors, the shrinking likelihood of reaching herd immunity is frustrating.

“I think every provider, I think they’d be lying to you if they weren’t feeling some of that frustration,” Dyksterhouse said. “Because we have a vaccine that is highly effective, that is very easily accessible, that is free ... and yet, for whatever reason, people are making decisions not to get it.”

Dr. David Priest, an infectious disease physician with Novant Health, called the situation “heartbreaking.”

“Even if the amount of COVID in the community is much lower and we’re getting closer to normal and physicians are dealing with it, there still will be situations where individuals will get COVID, they will die of COVID or be hospitalized from COVID who were not vaccinated and could’ve been protected,” Priest said.

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