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Vaccine Hesitancy Slows Pace For The Goal Of Herd Immunity

NOEL KING, HOST:

And back with us now is Dr. Ali Khan, who we've talked to throughout the pandemic. He's the dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska's Medical Center. Good morning, Dr. Khan.

ALI KHAN: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Let's talk about some of this news that we're hearing this morning. It looks like the FDA will OK the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds in the next week. How much of a difference will that make?

KHAN: It'll make a dramatic difference because one of the key parts of the economy that has yet to open up is working-age women because many of them are staying home with their kids. So this is going to get us much closer to having schools fully open in the fall, which is what we'd like to see. All teachers are already eligible. We'll now start vaccinating 12 and older. We've been able to vaccinate down to 16. And there's actually good data suggesting that we may be able to, by - at least by sometime in the summer, we'll know the data on the 5- to 12-year-olds, so we may even be able to vaccinate lower. So this is good news - schools fully open.

KING: There's no broad worry that giving kids the vaccine takes it away from older adults who are more vulnerable?

KHAN: Yeah, fortunately not. Thanks to great planning, there's more than enough vaccine. And if anything, the current problem in the United States is that we have more supply than we have demand or access for vaccine, as you just heard. We've only vaccinated - approximately, 34% of people have gotten two doses. And we really want to do much better. So, for example, Israel's about 55% of people who've been vaccinated, and they have one-tenth of the cases. So I'm a public health person. There's no expendable people in public health. We still have 700 people who die every day of this disease, and we need to drop that. And as I said, Israel has about one-tenth of the deaths that we do. So we still need to get out there and improve vaccine confidence and access.

KING: How do you do that? Because confidence is a big part of this. There is vaccine hesitancy even within the medical field, as we were just hearing. What is the solution to that?

KHAN: So there's multiple solutions to that. One is, we need to reassure people about the risk benefit of the vaccination. There is now - we're now into our fifth month of vaccinating people. Here in the United States, we've given out over 200 million doses. So this is a safe, effective, free vaccine. And we have lots of data now to support this, real-world data, to support this. We also need to trust clinicians and others. It's time to get this vaccine out throughout the health care system, since we have more than sufficient vaccine. We've gone from vaccinating about 3.4 million people a day to 2.3 million people a day. So there's sufficient vaccine now to get it out throughout the health care system.

We also need to remember that this is not just about vaccine confidence; this is about vaccine access. Because if you ask the question - and the Kaiser Foundation says about only 17% to 20% of people say, no way am I going to get vaccinated. So we're nowhere - so we're not 80% of people vaccinated in the U.S. So there's lots of room here. That's all about access. So have we got paid-time, leave-off policies for individuals? Do we have mobile clinics? Do we have workplace clinics in place? All sorts of things that still need to be done to improve access to vaccine for people who need it.

KING: A question we often ask doctors - and they say it is very hard to pin down an answer, but let's try it with you.

KHAN: (Laughter).

KING: With the rate of vaccinations as it is, do you think we're going to get to herd immunity?

KHAN: Oh, please, Noel, herd immunity - so...

(LAUGHTER)

KING: I said I was going to try.

KHAN: ...You know, 1918 was called the great pandemic; I'm going to call this the pandemic of false gods. So let me give you some context. So countries of diverse size, geography, social and political structures like China, Australia, Rwanda, they have zero-to-no cases, no vaccine, and the only god they worshipped was the public health god to protect everyone.

When this outbreak started in the U.S., we decided on - to use the evil and quite disastrous false god of herd immunity, which was to infect everyone. Well, fortunately, we abandoned that after about half-a-million deaths in the U.S. And then we pivoted to this new herd immunity, which is the routine herd immunity, which we think of vaccines. But that's really more for polio or measles than it is for something like COVID-19 because, you know, we have multiple public health measures. The heart is isolation quarantine and add in masks to that, social distancing, targeted lockdowns of places where people gather, and then add vaccines on to that. So I don't go around talking...

KING: A lot of measures. Dr. Ali Khan of the University of Nebraska's Medical Center. Sorry, we got to leave it there. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.