URMC Doctor: Herd immunity, vaccine for COVID-19 could ‘fully’ reopen society


ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The big question on everybody’s minds right now: when will society fully reopen? Doctors at the University of Rochester Medical Center said it will take the majority of people being exposed to COVID-19, or the development of a vaccine.

Herd immunity happens when 60% of a population is exposed to a disease. Dr. Michael Apostolakos is the chief medical officer at URMC. He said this has to be done slowly so hospitals aren’t overrun. Using social distancing to reach herd immunity prevents an exponential increase of cases because so many people have already been exposed over a longer period of time

Dr. Apostolakos said at this point only 5 – 10% of our population has been infected with COVID-19, meaning 90 to 95 percent are still at risk.

“Right now the population is being exposed, but at a very slow rate and that’s what social distancing does. It doesn’t get rid of the disease but it slows down the transmission and if people are going to get severely ill from it only a few will get severely ill at a time,” said Dr. Apostolakos.

This is why he said we need to continue social distancing until there’s no longer a risk of an exponential spike.

“Herd immunity occurs when there is enough of this spread over time to infect enough people. So if you didn’t do social distancing, a lot of people will get infected very quickly but it would overrun the healthcare system and people would die unnecessarily,” he said.

Dr. Apostolakos said a vaccine could also lead to the reopening of society.

“We’re hopeful that COVID-19 is a one-time disease that if we give a vaccine if would protect against it but there is concern that, like influenza, it would mutate and circulate each year in a different form. Even if that is the case, vaccines are generally helpful even if they’re not a perfect match for the virus. But once again since this is the first year of dealing with this, we’re not really sure was the future holds.”

Dr. Apostolakos also said they’re still not sure if people are immune to COVID-19 after getting it once. He said the new antibody tests will help determine that.

URMC is one of nine NIH funded vaccine trial evaluation units. They will be involved in the next phase of vaccine trials and hope to accept volunteers this summer.

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