Herd immunity is on the horizon but how we reach it is up to those not yet vaccinated

The CDC’s new mask guidance for vaccinated people may give people without the shot the wrong sign to take off their masks too, so scientists shared what the guidance means for reaching herd immunity.

"It’s not that everybody can take off their mask. That’s not what they’re saying. It’s just that the people who are fully vaccinated can feel comfortable not wearing their masks in most situations," said Dr. Michael Teng, a virologist with USF Health.

Throughout the pandemic, scientists shared how important a goal herd immunity is, and now, how the state and country reach that goal is up to those without the shot. Dr. Teng said vaccines help us reach herd immunity, which is when about 70 percent of people are protected against the virus. But that protection can come two ways.

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"We’re going to get to herd immunity whether we like it or not, through vaccinations or through natural infections somehow," said Teng.

Scientists said herd immunity still matters, and it will happen over time, whether it’s sooner or later.

"Herd immunity’s not a light switch. It’s not an on/off switch. As we get more people vaccinated, we’ll start decreasing transmission, and it’s more like a dimmer switch," said Teng.

Dr. Michael Muszynski, an infectious diseases researcher and professor at Florida State University, said only 36 percent of the country is fully vaccinated.

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"For the unvaccinated, however, their risks are less because there’s less disease but they’re still there. They can get terribly ill, and bad things can happen to them. So it’s really important to get vaccinated," said Muszynski. "I don’t want to reach herd immunity by having a lot of people get the disease and risk going to the hospital and dying. That would be bad."

CDC officials hope their new guidelines encourage people to get the shot and help push the U.S. toward herd immunity sooner.

"The vaccines that we have here in the United States are not just as good as getting natural infection. They’re better than getting natural infection," said Teng.

Scientists said the public should still care about reaching herd immunity because that shows us when the virus will die off.

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