Public debate about “herd immunity” often treats it as an on-off switch: when the United States achieves herd immunity, the crisis will be over; until then, the country has little immunity to Covid-19.
But this is not true.
Herd immunity is more like a dimmer switch. The more immunity people develop – either because they were infected or because they were vaccinated – the less easily the virus spreads.
Nearly 30% of Americans now have the virus, according to Youyang Gu, a data scientist. (This includes many people who have never had a Covid test.) About 18% have received at least one vaccine. There is some overlap between these two groups, which means that about 40% of Americans now have some protection against Covid.
If these people had been exposed to the virus a year ago, they could have been infected – and then spread Covid to others. Today, many are protected.
“This level of population immunity is slowing down transmission,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in The Washington Post. “After millions of infections and the start of a vaccination campaign, the virus is finally, slowly, running out of new people to infect.”
The pandemic is still far from over. And the situation could get even worse, due to a combination of risky behavior and new virus variants. Experts are particularly concerned about the rush by some states to lift mask mandates and restrictions on indoor gatherings. For now, however, virus trends are improving, thanks in large part to rising immunity levels.
When I last gave you an overview of the situation in the United States – two weeks ago – I highlighted a mix of positive trends (declining deaths in nursing homes and encouraging news on vaccines) and negative (increase in the number of cases and decrease in the number of vaccinations). Since then, the good news has largely continued, and the bad news has not. Below is a new update, with the help of three charts.
Cases are falling – slowly
When the number of new cases began to rise last month, it was reasonable to wonder if the most contagious virus variants were about to trigger a national surge. They do not have. In retrospect, February’s increase looks like a jolt:
One caveat, as you can see in the chart, is that the recent decline is much softer than the declines for most of January and February. The reasons are not entirely clear and variants may play a role. Either way, it’s another sign that the pandemic isn’t about to end.
The current pace will not be impressive for long. By the end of the month, the federal government will receive an average of more than three million doses per day, from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer. At this point, three million daily shots will be a more reasonable goal.
How quickly the Biden administration and state governments can get there will help determine how many lives are saved and how quickly normal life returns.
Variants look a little less scary
I recommend you keep two different ideas about variants in mind at the same time: First, one or more of the variants could create terrible problems – by being highly contagious, re-infecting people who already had Covid, or causing symptoms even more serious. A British study published yesterday, for example, found that the B.1.1.7 variant increases the risk of death in unvaccinated people.
But – here’s the second idea – the overall evidence on variants has been more encouraging so far than many people expected. Vaccines virtually eliminate hospitalizations and deaths in people who contract a variant. Reinfection does not appear to be widespread. And even though the variants are more contagious, they haven’t caused the kind of flare-ups that seemed possible a few weeks ago.
In Florida, where B.1.1.7 has spread widely, “there are no signs of an increase in cases”, Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research wrote. In South Africa, where the B.1.351 variant was detected for the first time, cases are nevertheless falling:
That’s a remarkable drop, considering the variant. What explains it? Growing natural immunity appears to be partly responsible, the Financial Times reported. The increase in vaccinations also helps. So did the restrictions that South Africa imposed in late December and January, including “a ban on alcohol sales, the closure of all land borders and most beaches, and a cover prolonged fire,” Bloomberg explained.
The bottom line
The South African situation also serves as a helpful summary of the U.S. position: natural immunity has become an important force in slowing the pandemic, but government policy can still make a big difference, by accelerating vaccination. and discouraging unnecessarily risky behavior.
In the past week, another 12,000 Americans have died from Covid. The crisis continues.
In other virus news:
The United States plans to buy an additional 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which can be used to vaccinate children once the FDA clears it.
The Biden administration has relaxed its guidelines for nursing home visits. The council recommends outdoor visits, but says ‘responsible indoor visits’ should be allowed.
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ARTS AND IDEAS
People pay a lot of money for gifs
Last month someone bought an animated gif of a flying cat for over $500,000. A short video by artist Beeple cost nearly $7 million. Anyone can still view or share the clips. So what’s the point of owning them?
This may not make sense to everyone – and has elements of a financial bubble. It mostly comes down to very expensive bragging rights, as well as the possibility of reselling it for a higher price.
These rights are known as NFTs, short for “non-fungible tokens”. “It seems crazy to do this for something purely digital that can be easily copied and shared on the internet,” Erin Griffith, a Times tech reporter who has written about the trend, told us. “But the popularity of NFTs shows that people are willing to pay for special and rare collectibles.”
Technology has made it easier for artists, musicians, and sports franchises to earn money from digital products. The NBA recently introduced a series of NFTs, Top Shot, which turn highlight clips into trading cards. In music, Kings of Leon’s latest album is an NFT.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to cook
What to read
Jackie Polzin’s “Brood” is a “wonderfully written debut novel, full of nuance, humor and weirdness,” writes novelist Elizabeth McCracken in a review.
Yesterday’s Spelling Bee pangram was manual. Here’s today’s puzzle — or you can play online.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a hint: Pops (three letters).
If you want to play more, find all our games here.
Thank you for spending part of your morning with The Times. Until tomorrow. – David
PS The Senate confirmed Janet Reno as the nation’s first female attorney general 28 years ago today. The Times article quoted a certain senator from Delaware praising her: “President Clinton – though not his first time at bat – hit a home run.”
You can see today’s first printed page here.
Today’s episode of ‘The Daily’ discusses the parallels between Diana and Meghan. On “Sway,” Spike Lee talks about his movies.