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The speed of vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
  • Experts believe it will take vaccinating 70 to 90 percent of Americans before we reach herd immunity.
  • Currently nearly 1 in 4 people are against getting any of the vaccines, according to a recent NPR/Marist poll.
  • Experts point out that the push for COVID-19 vaccines face challenges that immunization campaigns have not.

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As of May 3, more than 147 million Americans have received at least one dose of the available COVID-19 vaccines.

That’s more than 44 percent of the population.

But experts estimate we won’t hit herd immunity — when enough people are vaccinated to essentially stop the transmission of the virus — until 70 to 90 percent of people are vaccinated.

Currently, nearly 1 in 4 people are against getting any of the vaccines, according to a recent NPR/Marist poll.

The poll found that 25 percent of respondents said they would refuse a coronavirus vaccine if offered it outright. Five percent are still “undecided.”

While there will be hurdles to getting enough people vaccinated to reach herd immunity, we can look at past vaccination campaigns to better understand the challenges.

In fact, from birth to 15 months old, most children are given vaccines for a variety of illnesses, including everything from hepatitis B and rotavirus to diphtheria, poliovirus, measles, mumps, rubella, HPV, and more.

It’s part of what’s required to enter the public school system, attend sleepaway camps, go to college, and so much more.

So why the hesitation toward the COVID-19 vaccines, and what can we do to help get us closer to herd immunity? What can we learn from past successful vaccine campaigns to help move this one forward?

There’s still a large group of people who believe that the vaccine was developed too quickly and are taking a “wait and see” approach.

Others haven’t been vaccinated because of difficulties with language barriers or issues of accessibility.

“People who are watching and waiting think it was developed too quickly or are worried about long-term side effects,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine in the department of health policy and professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.

“Show me a vaccine that we have been using for decades that has any long-term side effects. They don’t have them,” he said. “Every vaccine has side effects, but they will be evident in the first 3 months.”

Other vaccination campaigns have been wildly successful but have been mainly focused on reaching people when they were children.

Measles are among these successful campaigns. Nearly 92% of Americans are vaccinated against the measles via the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) shot.

The polio vaccine helped to eliminate that disease from the United States in the 1970s.

But while these campaigns were successes, the fact that they were administered as childhood vaccines makes them very different from how the COVID-19 vaccines are administered.

“All of these vaccines mentioned are all basically childhood vaccines,” said Schaffner. “That’s very different from adult immunization. It is Earth and Mars.”

Schaffner added that there are other reasons why these vaccine campaigns were universally accepted among the population.

Polio (also called poliomyelitis) is a highly contagious disease that can cause permanent paralysis. It sent thousands of children to hospitals, and many didn’t survive.

The parents of children were emotionally and personally invested in finding a cure. Plus, the earliest vaccine was administered on a sugar cube without the need for needles and syringes.

The measles vaccine was easy to make universal because vaccination was signed into law.

No shot? No school. The legislation was passed in 50 state legislatures, the House of Representatives, and senate. When the law went into effect, more than 90 percent of children received vaccinations.

Even the vaccine for HPV — which continues to be voluntary — is growing to become more universally administered among young adults. It’s now part of the routine immunization schedule that pediatricians adhere to.

But even with these improvements, many children still haven’t gotten the HPV shot. Young adults who have received the vaccine have nearly doubled since 2013 from just over 20 percent to nearly 40 percent in 2018.

COVID-19 vaccines are voluntary, and as with most voluntary immunizations for adults, you’re rarely able to achieve numbers anywhere near 100.

“I wish we had several methods that are effective for vaccinating adults,” said Schaffner. “Other than making them a healthcare provider or having them enlist in the armed forces. We have not had recipes for extremely effective immunization programs in adults.”

The COVID-19 vaccines have become highly politicized. The entire virus has been a divisive issue for the country.

“There are political leaders, down at county and city levels, that really need to say they want everyone in their community to be vaccinated,” said Schaffner. “Business leaders have been largely absent. Where are the chambers of commerce? Where are the religious leaders?”

Other barriers have already been eliminated. Most importantly, the vaccine is free. Second, the vaccine is becoming more and more accessible by the day.

As of April, all adults ages 16 and older are eligible for vaccination across the United States.

So if the vaccine is free and accessible, the last barrier to overcome is comfort.

“What will make me comfortable enough to go to the pharmacy and get the vaccine? We have to provide that information but also a measure of comfort and reassurance. People have to feel good about it,” said Schaffner.

As of May 2 29, New York State had administered 16 million of its 19 million distributed doses.

A newly launched NY State Citizen Public Health Leader program speaks to the role of dis- and misinformation specifically. The 16-hour program was designed to provide free education that discusses all things COVID-19 and vaccines.

Some of the programs that the state health department has started are campaigns, such as Governor Cuomo’s “Roll Up Your Sleeves” campaign, or the “Vaccinate NY” campaign.

The point being, availability and accessibility are two of the hurdles the country is overcoming.

The state has 31 mass vaccination sites, including 5 new pop-up sites with walk-in appointments across New York City.

“As [Governor Andrew Cuomo] has said, the vaccine is the weapon that will win the war, and our goal is to get as many shots into as many arms as we can, as quickly as possible,” said a representative from the New York State Department of Health. “We are working with county health departments, healthcare providers, including hospitals and pharmacies, and community partners throughout the state to ensure they have the doses they need to provide vaccinations to all the people in their respective regions who want them.”