With vaccine eligibility expanded to Texas residents 16 and older, an increasing supply of doses and falling hospitalization numbers, many Austinites feel newfound hope that the pandemic's end is, finally, in sight.
And it really could be as public health experts are optimistic that herd immunity is achievable through mass vaccination. With the current rate of vaccinations, herd immunity is achievable by summer, says Shelley Payne, director of the John Ring LaMontagne Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas at Austin. "I think we can hit the goal," she told Austonia.
Experts also warn, however, of obstacles to achieving this goal, including vaccine hesitancy and new viral variants that could make herd immunity harder to reach.
Herd immunity 101
Herd immunity occurs when enough people are immune to a disease—either because they have recovered from it and developed natural immunity or because of vaccination—that makes it unlikely for someone who contracts the disease to spread it. With no one to infect, the disease dies out.
Public health experts have said herd immunity for COVID will require around 80% of the population to be immune based on its relative infectiousness. COVID is "not as infectious as measles"—which has a herd immunity threshold of 95%—"but it is still relatively easy to pass the disease onto other people," Payne said.
Although natural immunity also contributes to herd immunity and is partially responsible for the sharp downturn in the number of new COVID infections and related hospitalizations in the last few months, vaccination is the gold standard among experts because of the increased security it offers. There remain unanswered questions about natural immunity, including how long it lasts and how many people have it, Payne explained. Plus, vaccines offer a kind of booster to those who have natural immunity already.
Austin Public Health estimates there have been 77,473 recovered COVID cases in Travis County since the pandemic began. Although this is surely an undercount due to the limitations of testing and the occurrence asymptomatic cases, it is still dwarfed by the number of county residents who have been vaccinated so far: 350,444, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
An obstacle course
Nearly one-third of Travis County residents are partially vaccinated, and just over 15% are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Among certain priority groups vaccination is much higher. For example, around 63% of residents 65 and older are at least partially vaccinated.
Dr. David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System and a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel, said this has translated into fewer severe cases, hospitalizations and deaths as well as much needed relief for the healthcare system. "In many ways, we're already seeing the benefits of the number of people that are immune," he added.
This is good news given that Lakey also pointed to obstacles that could defer herd immunity, including the prospect of a fourth surge. "I am concerned related to spring break," he said, referring to reports of packed Florida beaches and unmasked throngs.
Because high-risk groups are likely to be vaccinated and low-risk groups are unlikely to require hospitalization, such a surge would be less severe than previous ones. But it could lead to new variants.
Dr. Deborah Fuller, a vaccinologist and professor of microbiology at the University of Washington, explained that as long as COVID is spreading, it is mutating. Until we reach herd immunity, such mutations could lead to a new form of the virus that isn't covered by the current vaccines or is more dangerous to low-risk populations, such as children. "It's sort of a battle where, in order to reach herd immunity, we have to get ahead of the virus," she said.
A likely forecast
At this stage in the pandemic, with both natural immunity and the vaccination rate continuing to grow, especially among the highest-risk populations, we are less susceptible than we were in the beginning. "It's not like we're going to go back to lockdowns again," Fuller said, adding that any coming surges will likely be less devastating.
Still, herd immunity is not guaranteed because of obstacles such as vaccine hesitancy, the emergence of new variants and the possibility of a fourth surge that could prevent us from reaching the 80% threshold—or even drive the threshold up further if the new variants are more infectious.
DSHS is tracking COVID-19 variant cases in Texas.
Variants may spread more easily or cause more serious illness. Vaccines and #HealthyTexas steps can help slow and contain variants.
Texas COVID-19 variant tracking info and cases: https://t.co/mZjELTOrF2#COVID19TXpic.twitter.com/12HPgOhWkT
— Texas DSHS (@TexasDSHS) March 25, 2021
There is also the possibility that Travis County achieves herd immunity but surrounding regions, states or countries do not. "We have so much travel and mixing of populations now that ... we really need to get to herd immunity everywhere," Payne said.
So what happens if we don't achieve herd immunity? It is likely that COVID goes the route of whooping cough or chicken pox, rather than polio, which was eradicated through vaccine-powered herd immunity in 1979, Lakey said. This would be an improvement from the current pandemic status, with limited outbreaks similar to the annual flu season, if not quite as ideal as herd immunity. "It's going to be awhile before this totally goes away," he said.
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Tesla is not recalling almost 1.1 million vehicles because windows may close with excessive force and pinch a driver or passenger, according to a Tesla filing, which says the windows' automatic reversal system may not react correctly after detecting an obstruction.
The Austin company's internal testing revealed the issue in August. Tesla filed a "Part 573 Safety Recall Report" with the NHTSA identifying the issues, outlining a "recall plan," and listing affected models and years, including "certain vehicles":
- Model S 2021-2022
- Model 3 2017-2022
- Model X 2021-2022
- Model Y 2020-2022 (including some that were made in the Austin factory)
Owner notification letters are expected to be mailed Nov. 15.
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Camp Fimfo Waco, a brand new camping resort, is kicking off football and fall camping season in style! With top-notch amenities, premium accommodations, and 10 weekends of fall fun, there’s no better place to have a fall camping getaway, especially if you’re a Baylor football fan!
Fall promises to be a one-of-a-kind camping experience. From Sept. 16 to Nov. 24, weekends will be packed with fall-themed activities, including special Halloween weekends in October. Campers can enjoy activities like fall crafts, campground trick-or-treating, costume contests, site decorating, outdoor movie nights, and more!
Packages and Ways to Stay
Camp Fimfo Waco
Located just 5 miles from McLane Stadium, Camp Fimfo Waco is the perfect place to stay during home game weekends. Skip the stuffy hotel room and embrace the great outdoors before cheering on the Baylor Bears! Campers can purchase a Baylor Tailgating Package that includes a pre-game meal from Executive Chef Sean Kelley and transportation to and from the game! Chef Kelley will also be cooking up delicious, elevated tailgating meals near the stadium so make sure to check out The Plaid Plate food truck before the game.
Stay in style and comfort, no matter your camping preference! At Camp Fimfo Waco, there are multiple ways to stay. Red Carpet RV sites come with a concrete pad and patio, full hook-ups, cable hook-up, a charcoal grill, fire ring and fire pit. Back-in or pull-thru options are available, as well as coveted spots tucked along the Bosque River!
Don’t have an RV? Not a problem, Camp Fimfo Waco has cabins too! Book a Riverview Firewheel Cabin if you’re looking for an air-conditioned oasis for the whole family. Complete with a kitchen and private bathroom, this cabin can fit up to 10 people. Elevate your stay by adding on a golf cart or snag a private cabana by the pool for guaranteed shade. With wifi available throughout the park, you can stay connected during your stay!
Amenities and Activities
Camp Fimfo Waco
Camp Fimfo Waco features lots of amenities to fill your days with fun, whether you’re a kid or kid at heart. After challenging your friends to a game of pickleball, basketball, or mini golf, go for a dip in the resort-style, heated pool - open daily through October! Stay on the weekends through October to enjoy the interactive splash playground. With plenty of ways to burn off energy, like the jumping pillow or playground, you can be sure to end the day with a peaceful night around the campfire!
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