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Here’s how fast Rhode Island could reach ‘herd immunity’

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With vaccinations ramping up more quickly in Rhode Island, the question swirling around many dinner tables and board rooms is when the state might reach herd immunity and move into a more normal future.

Gov. Dan McKee has set his sights on a threshold of 70% vaccinated, saying at that point he would be open to further relaxing business and social restrictions. He would also consider lifting the state of emergency order Rhode Island has been under for more than a year. The order has given McKee – and former Gov. Gina Raimondo before him – broad authority over decision-making and spending that would normally have to go through the checks and balances of the General Assembly.

Gov. Dan McKee (WPRI/File)

“I’m looking forward to eliminating this executive order,” McKee said earlier this month, pointing to the 70% threshold.

This week, the McKee administration indicated the state could reach 70% partially vaccinated by mid-May, saying future allocation of vaccine supply suggests the pace of inoculations could speed up much quicker over the next month. As of Tuesday, about 31% of the state’s population had received at least one shot.

“By June, we should have enough vaccine in the state where we can vaccinate everyone that’s eligible,” said Tom McCarthy, executive director of the state’s COVID-19 response team.

But the state’s math is a bit fuzzy, as its 70% threshold is based only on the population that is currently eligible to receive the shot – which is about 877,000 Rhode Islanders, or 82% of the total population.

Put another way, if the state vaccinates 70% of the eligible group it would only equate to about 58% of the state’s roughly 1 million people. That percentage is far short of the 70% to 90% benchmark many public health experts predict is needed for community protection from the virus, also known as herd immunity. And even that range is open to debate.

“We don’t really know what that magical point of herd immunity is, but we do know that if we get the overwhelming population vaccinated, we’re going to be in good shape,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a recent U.S. Senate hearing.

An independent Target 12 analysis of R.I. Department of Health data shows the state at its current pace will partially vaccinate about 70% of its total population around mid-July. Health officials don’t dispute the analysis, but they predict the influx of so many more vaccine doses over the next few weeks should accelerate the timeline.

Target 12 will continue to track real-time numbers and adjust its model daily to show those changes, which will be posted on the WPRI.com COVID-19 Tracking Page.

Now that supply is increasing, one of the biggest challenges facing the state is that there is no vaccine currently approved for children and teenagers under 16 years old. Pfizer announced Wednesday its COVID-19 vaccine is 100% effective in people ages 12 to 15, but the research must be vetted and approved by the federal government.

“We’d anticipate end of summer, early fall, when we can have emergency use authorization for Rhode Islanders of that age,” McCarthy said.

But even then, there still wouldn’t be a vaccine for younger Rhode Islanders. Moderna – one of the other three vaccines currently approved for emergency use – announced this week it’s starting trials for children under 12 years old, yet it remains unclear when that research might be completed and whether the vaccines will be deemed safe.

Without those age groups vaccinated, Rhode Island is banking heavily on the hope that almost everyone who is eligible will get vaccinated. And while health officials point to the state’s historically high rates of vaccine acceptance, a Wall Street Journal analysis of a federal survey published this week shows vaccine hesitancy has increased recently in Rhode Island at the same time it has decreased nationwide.

McCarthy, who said his team is reviewing the analysis, said the state is running its own research currently to try and find ways to build confidence.

“I’m always concerned about confidence,” he said. “What can we do every single day to continue to increase confidence and that sense of urgency, so that Rhode Islanders get the vaccine as soon as there’s a slot available.”  

One final challenge facing the state’s vaccination rollout is the slowly, but steadily increasing number of new daily infections. In Rhode Island, the 7-day average recently edged above 400 for the first time since early February, when the state was coming down from its second wave.

Health officials told Target 12 they expect the B.1.1.7 variant, which originated in the United Kingdom, to be the dominant strain of COVID-19 next month in Rhode Island, and that variant has proven far more contagious than the original strain.

“There’s a much higher transmissibility with that variant,” McCarthy said.  

Public health experts, including Brown University’s Dr. Ashish Jha, have encouraged states to slow down or pause reopening efforts, as infections have begun to rise again. Asked Tuesday if he had any plans to slow down operations, McKee pointed out that Jha was part of his advisory group, but then said he wouldn’t be shifting course with reopening efforts.

“Right now, Rhode Island is holding its own, and I expect to kind of continue to keep that path,” McKee said.

McCarthy echoed the governor, saying there are no current plans to slow down.

“That’s not a recommendation that we’re making right now,” he said.  

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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