While public health experts fear herd immunity won’t be reached in time for the statewide June 15 reopening, they also worry misinformation about vaccines could put more roadblocks in the way.

County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau has also expressed concerns that herd immunity —  at least 70% of OC’s residents are vaccinated — won’t be hit by the time the state nixes nearly all pandemic restrictions except masks. 

If not enough people are vaccinated, the virus can still spread because antibodies in people who’ve had coronavirus before only last so long.

“Ultimately what’s going to serve us best in the long run is widespread vaccination. It’s our best insurance policy against a Fall wave. I’m not so much worried about the coming Summer,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer, in a phone interview last week.

Bernadette Boden-Albala, founding dean of UCI’s public health program, said she’s not sure if the county will hit herd immunity in time for the statewide reopening. 

In a phone interview late last month, she noted “the effort has been much better, much stronger, so the numbers are starting to increase.” 

As of April 25, more than 1 million Orange County residents have been fully vaccinated throughout the county where roughly 3.2 million people live.

“Remember we need it done by June 15 for us to be safe. And what I worry about is we don’t have enough effort,” Boden-Albala said “Is it fast enough?

UCI epidemiologist and public health expert Sanghyuk Shin said herd immunity is tricky because the virus can still spread to the people who aren’t vaccinated. 

“Even though 70% is an estimate, it’s not sort of a hard and fast rule. And herd immunity doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to hit that level of immune protection and can go back to our normal lives,” Shin said in a Wednesday phone interview.

He said new modeling from the CDC suggests a spike in cases could happen in the coming weeks.

“How high that increase will be depends on how much we can roll out the vaccines and how well we do with social distancing and masks, and avoiding crowded indoor areas,” Shin said. “I do think that there is a very good chance for another spike occurring, but how big that spike is going to be depends on our collective response right now.’”

Shin’s colleague, epidemiologist Daniel Parker also said herd immunity is a difficult concept. 

“In reality, herd immunity is extremely complex. The kind of numbers that get thrown around are making really simplistic assumptions. So you calculate what proportion of a population you need to have vaccinated or immune based off of how transmittable it is,” Parker said in a Wednesday phone interview. 

He said if one area has high vaccination rates compared to another area, then herd immunity isn’t quite reached. 

“If you had a really high uptake in vaccine in one community, but little uptake in the other community … it gets washed out by the lack of uptake,” Parker said, adding the unvaccinated part of the community could breed new variants that could potentially be vaccine resistant.  

The public health experts also worry the increasing misinformation being spread will hamper vaccination efforts.

Suellen Hopfer, an associate professor in UCI’s department of population health and disease prevention, said it’s extremely difficult to counteract misinformation. 

“The challenge is the science and what we know about COVID is constantly evolving and people are working very hard to rapidly put out accurate information. And you’re competing in a very competitive message environment where if you don’t get it out there, the void will be filled by misinformation,” Hopfer said, who’s researching ways to combat misinformation at the university.

State and local officials have repeatedly said vaccines or the passports won’t be forced on people. 

Although, state health officials quietly created a de facto vaccine passport system last month when they modified the pandemic reopening system guidelines, essentially incentivizing certain businesses to check for vaccinations and negative test results.

Sports stadiums, concert halls and family entertainment centers could allow more people inside if they can prove everyone is either vaccinated or has negative test results, under the guidelines.

Local public health officials are looking into getting digital vaccine records for people after the CDC and the FBI have said physical vaccine cards can be easily forged.

The Orange County Board of Education is slated to debate vaccine passports at their 5 p.m. meeting today. The meeting can be watched live on YouTube at the link provided here.

The board will consider a resolution declaring their opposition to mandatory vaccines and vaccine passports, despite local and state officials declaring that such mandates won’t be forced on residents.

“The board stands side by side with Orange County residents against mandatory vaccinations, particularly that of school-age children. The board has repeatedly proven itself to be a strong supporter of parental rights,” reads a statement about vaccines the board will also vote on today.

At the school board meeting last month, residents railed against mandated vaccines — echoing comments that have become increasingly common at county supervisors meetings.

Parker said some people simply won’t get vaccinated. 

“There’s a subset of people — they never get the flu vaccine and maybe find ways of getting out of other vaccines too. That’s a hard subset of the population to reach,” he said. “All you can do, really, is your best. But at the end of the day, just try to surround them with vaccinated people.”

The school board statement says Chau may have suggested mandatory vaccines, despite Chau repeatedly denying it and saying there are no plans for mandatory vaccinations.

Health Care Agency officials again addressed the mandatory vaccination claim Wednesday.

“Dr. Chau has been clear that he has no authority to mandate vaccination under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization,” reads an email statement from agency spokeswoman Jessica Good.

The Orange County Department of Education (OCDE), which is independent of the board, is also working to counter the misinformation circulating in the community.

“Our intent is to make sure that the right information is out there and that there are no misunderstandings. We’ve said time and time again parental consent is required for anyone under 18 to get vaccinated and so we hope to alleviate any fears or concerns and clear up any rumors,” said Ian Hanigan, the department’s public information officer.

On Monday the department put out a statement clarifying that parental consent is needed for children under 18 to get a vaccine and that vaccines are not mandatory for anybody in California, including students.

“Despite rumors to the contrary, no such proposal is — or has ever been — under discussion by OCDE or the Orange County Health Care Agency,” reads the department’s statement.

Meanwhile, Orange County’s virus hospitalizations continue to dip. 

As of Wednesday, 89 people were hospitalized, including 25 in intensive care units. 

The virus has now killed 4,979 people — more than nine times the flu does on a yearly average. 

COVID deaths surpassed average yearly cancer deaths in OC. 

It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively. 

Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.

Last year, more than 24,400 OC residents died, according to the latest state health data.

According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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