What is Omicron’s impact on reaching herd immunity?

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Midsection of female doctor with swab test sample during COVID-19 crisis. Female medical professional is holding test tube in hospital. She is wearing protective suit. (Getty)

ST. LOUIS – With the rapid spread of the Omicron variant through St. Louis and beyond, are we any closer to reaching herd immunity and transitioning from a pandemic to an endemic? An infectious disease expert says there is reason to hope, but it is still too early to know.

“We are in the 5th surge now, and you want it to mean something,” says Dr. JoAnn Jose, SLUCare infectious disease specialist at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. She says unfortunately there is no answer just yet.

She explains it is possible and even probable that because of the increased transmissibility and increased potential for breakthrough infection with the omicron variant that there will be a higher population level of immunity than previously.

“However, Omicron existing shows us that this virus is really clever and not done with us yet,” said Dr. Jose.

She explains that the Omicron variant is a sobering reminder that the immunity you do have – whether due to natural infection, vaccine, or vaccine booster- is not unassailable. She says that a variant with the right combination of mutations can overcome immunity.

“There is reason to hope this increases our herd immunity, that this gets us closer to an endemic infection instead of a pandemic, but we have to be prepared for what this virus has in store for us and none of us can know what that is,” says Dr. Jose.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are a few ways to achieve herd immunity- natural infection and vaccination.

The Mayo Clinic says herd immunity can be reached when enough people in the population have recovered from a disease and have developed protective antibodies against future infection. However, the clinic says reinfection can be a problem because it’s unclear how long you are protected after recovering from COVID-19.

The other way to reach herd immunity is through vaccination. The site states that could be difficult due to vaccine hesitancy and questions about how long the COVID-19 vaccine will protect you from the virus.

The Mayor Clinic says while the U.S. is making progress toward herd immunity through a combined approach it’s not clear if or when herd immunity will be reached.

Dr. Jose also points out available data suggests the protection someone has from the vaccine and booster gives them a substantial level of protection from serious illness and hospitalizations, more than with the vaccine alone or with the previous history of natural infection.

At some point, the World Health Organization will determine when enough countries have tamped down their COVID-19 cases sufficiently — or at least, hospitalizations and deaths — to declare the pandemic officially over. Exactly what that threshold will be isn’t clear.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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