Immunologist warns against pandemic fatigue

Image of the pathogen responsible for COVID-19. Source: CDC.

Immunologist Paul Offit is worried about what he views as a growing desensitization to the statistics on COVID-19 infection rates and death tolls.

“I know we’re really tired of this,” Offit said at a recent virtual talk. “I just think we’re getting numb to the numbers. I mean, there’s that awful Stalin quote, right, which is, ‘One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.’ I feel like that’s where we are here.”

Offit, director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center, said the public may not understand how widespread the pandemic is.

“When they say that 32 million people have been infected, those are just people who have been tested and found to be infected,” Offit said.

He explained that, according to antibody surveillance studies, the real number is “probably closer to 100 million people in this country who’ve already been infected, which is roughly 30 percent of the country.”

Offit also had more encouraging news to report, including that as much as 25 percent of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated and 40 percent partially vaccinated. He said that as much as 45 percent of the country may now be immune to COVID-19, either as a result of vaccinations or natural immunity.

The goal, Offit said, is to reach 80 percent population immunity. If that benchmark is hit by late summer, Offit said, the following winter will see only a bump in cases, rather than a surge. He expects that much will depend on how many Americans intentionally choose not to get vaccinated.

Turning to the issue of vaccination mandates, Offit said that while he does not expect to see them in the public sector, they have already begun appearing in the private sector. Some 40 universities are telling students that those who are not vaccinated will have to do distance learning, Offit said.

Offit said that it is possible for those who are vaccinated to transmit COVID-19, and that it is important to remain on guard against the variants that have emerged.

“When people say to me, ‘Why do you still wear a mask when you go to the deli down the street?’ it’s because of the variants,” Offit said. “It’s the variants that scare me.”

Offit said it is unknown how long the current vaccines will remain effective and whether booster shots will be necessary. He predicted that the current vaccines could provide two to three years’ worth of protection. “I’ll probably be wrong,” he added, “because you’re always wrong about this virus.”

Asked if those who are fully vaccinated should remain distant from their grandchildren, Offit’s reply was a simple one.

“No, I think you should kiss your grandchildren.”

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