We’re Thinking About Herd Immunity All Wrong, Says Social Epidemiologist

Dr. Malia Jones of University of Wisconsin-Madison says herd immunity is not a “magic light switch” to end the pandemic.

“Herd immunity” is a term that is often thrown around to indicate a point where the United States would have enough people vaccinated or otherwise immune to COVID-19 that we could all go back to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. The actual threshold for herd immunity is under debate among public health experts.

“It’s not something that’s easy to forecast for any disease until we’ve actually reached it and then started to lose it.” –Dr. Malia Jones, University of Wisconsin-Madison

One researcher says this way of discussing herd immunity as a “magic light switch” is incorrect, and that many of us have been talking about and thinking about it all wrong.

Listen: Social epidemiologist Dr. Malia Jones talks about what we’ve been getting wrong about herd immunity.


Dr. Malia Jones is a social epidemiologist at the Applied Population Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She recently wrote a piece in Slate titled, “Most People Are Thinking of Herd Immunity All Wrong.” She says that people need to look at herd immunity as something to prevent the next pandemic, rather than the finishing line for the current one.

Herd immunity, according to Jones, is also a difficult number to get exact because it is always changing based on several factors and is very sensitive. “It’s not something that’s easy to forecast for any disease until we’ve actually reached it and then started to lose it.” She feels it is not practical to focus solely on herd immunity. “What we need to do is get enough people vaccinated that transmission chains stop,” she says.

Jones says she’s optimistic that herd immunity can be achieved and believes that vaccines are the way to reach it. She says her one worry would be a variant that current vaccines do not protect against. “There could be a variant that essentially undoes all of our hard work getting people vaccinated so far. And that would be a major setback. But, so far, the vaccines we have covered the variants that exist.”

She also recommends that women who are breastfeeding get immunized. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not contain a whole virus, so the CDC recommends that breastfeeding women receive it. “All the national breastfeeding support organizations out there really encourage breastfeeding women to get the vaccine. It turns out that the antibodies that you produce are transferred in breast milk and you’ll be protecting your baby.”

Web story written by Dan Netter

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