Video above: Vaccination rates lag in some states as U.S. moves toward reopening
COVID-19 infections may be on the decline, but the urgency to continue vaccinating the U.S. population is far from over, one expert said.
“We are going to need to have a highly vaccinated population for years if not longer. This virus is going to be circulating in the world for a long time,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccine Advisory Committee.
As the virus spread across the globe, it mutated into more transmissible strains — including the Alpha and Delta variants. Though vaccines are shown to be effective against these variants, experts warn it is crucial to get ahead of them with widespread immunization.
If the virus continues to spread, it has an increased chance of spawning variants that are even more contagious, Offit said.
“When a virus is more contagious, you need to have a higher percentage of the population that is protected, immunized, if you’re going to stop the spread,” he added.
As of Monday, 52.5% of Americans had received at least one dose of vaccine, but only 43.7% were fully vaccinated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Offit said by the winter, when the virus is likely to surge again, the U.S. will need to get the number of fully vaccinated up to 80% or higher to protect the population.
The good news, Offit said, is that although the spread of more contagious variants may be less inhibited by vaccines, the level of protection still appears to be high.
“I think that vaccines will keep you out of the hospital, will keep you out of the ICU, and will keep you from dying,” Offit said.
Immune system protection may extend a year after infection, study finds
Fortunately, people who have been infected with COVID-19 appear to maintain their immune response for at least a year, according to a study published in the journal Nature.
Researchers reported that the human immune system’s memory B-cells continue generating protection against COVID-19 for at least a year.
Studies have shown that people who recovered from coronavirus infections may be vulnerable to new variants of the virus, but also that vaccines, especially mRNA vaccines like those made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, generate a strong response that protects people against those variants.
An extra boost with a vaccine may expand the protection that recovered patients have, researchers said.
“The data suggest that immunity in convalescent individuals will be very long lasting and that convalescent individuals who receive available mRNA vaccines will produce antibodies and memory B cells that should be protective against circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants,” the researchers wrote.
“The antibodies produced by the memory cells evolved increased breadth and potency,” molecular immunologist Michel Nussenzweig of The Rockefeller University, who worked on the study, told CNN.
Nussenzweig said the research should encourage people who previously had COVID-19 to get vaccinated if they haven’t already. “Yes, they should get vaccinated,” he said, “And if they do they should be bulletproof for SARS-CoV-2.”