Herd immunity in the Wilmington area may no longer be possible, health officials say – StarNewsOnline.com

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As demand for the COVID-19 vaccine begins to decline throughout the state, some local health officials say herd immunity may not be as achievable as they once hoped. 

For nearly a year now, people have put their sights on reaching the point when enough people have antibodies from being infected or receiving a vaccine to ultimately stop the spread of the virus and end the pandemic. National leaders said that number could be anywhere between 70% and 90%. 

Now, health officials are saying there’s no clear indication on when – or if – the country and smaller communities within it will reach herd immunity. Even after more than 50% of Americans have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, about a quarter of Americans still say they don’t plan on getting vaccinated, making large-scale immunity nearly impossible. 

“Rather than concentrating on an elusive number, let’s get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president, said during a White House briefing. 

Even areas that saw a higher demand for the vaccine at first have seen that diminish over the past few weeks. In New Hanover County, demand for the vaccine remained high as surrounding areas began to slow, but that demand didn’t last, said Health Director David Howard. 

Howard said the decline was expected, as most people who had a higher need for the vaccine, like seniors and health care workers, have received it. The slowing, he said, likely comes from a lack of urgency among young people because they are less at-risk. 

COVID hospitalization: New Hanover seeing more under 65 hospitalized for COVID-19. What’s behind the shift?[1]

Schools and COVID-19: Will the COVID-19 vaccine be required in Wilmington-area K-12 schools?[2]

USA Today reported vaccine hesitancy could be political. While just under 80% of self-proclaimed Democrats said they wanted to get vaccinated, less than half of Republicans said the same. 

Those numbers aren’t reflected in the Wilmington area.

In New Hanover County, which is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats according to the State Board of Elections, around 35% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of April 29, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. But in Brunswick, where Republicans make up a much larger portion of the population than Democrats, 40% have received their first dose. 

Pender, which reports to be 26% registered Democrat and 40% Republican, has had just over 28% of people receive at least one vaccine dose.

Rather, vaccination numbers more closely reflect age demographics in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 30% of Brunswick’s population is 65 or older, while that age group makes up less than 20% of the New Hanover and Pender populations. 

Because of that, New Hanover Regional Medical Center for the first time has more people under 65 hospitalized with COVID-19 than over. According to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard[3], nearly 40% of all local COVID-19 cases have been found in those ages 25 to 49.

Chief Clinical Officer West Paul said that’s because of new variants of the virus. The vaccine has proven to protect against those variants, but since significantly fewer young people are vaccinated that population is more at risk of becoming sick or hospitalized from them. 

For more rural areas of the state, that decline in demand has long existed. In Pender County, health officials said they have consistently had unfilled appointment slots for weeks and opened a walk-in clinic because of that to salvage the doses of the vaccine they’ve received. 

At this point, it’s unlikely Pender County will reach herd immunity, said Health and Human Services Director Carolyn Moser. That’s not for a lack of trying, she said, but for the same reason as the slowing in New Hanover County. 

People younger than 50 have less urgency to get the vaccine because they are less at risk, she said. 

“I just think that that’s just a typical response for that age group for the most part,” Moser said. “I would imagine, you know, unless you have high-risk medical conditions at that age, you think you can overcome anything.” 

Brunswick County has seen some of that trend among young people as well, said Communications Director Meagan Kascsak. She said health officials highly encourage anyone eligible to get the vaccine.

COVID-19 vaccine news: How Wilmington-area residents are getting the COVID-19 vaccine without an appointment[4]

Walk-up clinics: New Hanover: Walk-up clinic available for Pfizer vaccinations, no appointment needed[5]

Area counties have begun offering walk-up clinics so residents can get the vaccine when it’s convenient for them without having an appointment. New Hanover County’s scheduled walk-up appointments can be found at health.nhcgov.com/coronavirus/covid-19-vaccine[6] and Pender’s are daily at 803 S. Walker St. Vaccines in Brunswick County are available by appointment, which can be scheduled at brunswickcountync.gov/health/coronavirus/vaccines[7].  

Moser said even people who are not high-risk for the coronavirus should get the vaccine. It not only protects the person receiving the vaccine from the virus and its variants but also keeps the virus from spreading to others in the community who may be at higher risk. 

“It’s not about you, it’s about the individuals that you live with, your family and your friends and your coworkers, and protecting others,” she said. 

Reporter Sydney Hoover can be reached at 910-343-2339 or at shoover@gannett.com.

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