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According to the regularly updated University of Michigan COVID-19 Data, 96% of students and 88% of the employees at the University have been fully vaccinated. These seem like pretty solid numbers, and they are, considering the University’s arguably inadequate COVID-19 health guidelines like the no mask mandate at football games and the decision to end COVID-19 classroom notifications. However, if we were to examine the vaccination rates across all of Washtenaw County, only 65.3% of residents are fully vaccinated. At the state level, only 58.7% of the population is fully vaccinated. Across the country, as of now, only 57% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. For reference, that’s roughly 70 million people in the United States still unvaccinated, giving plenty of opportunity for the COVID-19 virus and its deadly variants to infect and transmit throughout the population. 

Non-vaccination seems like a very complacent response to the adverse outcomes of the pandemic, but it’s not surprising or new that individuals are hesitant to receive the vaccine. While many shame this view as a politically charged, ill-informed opinion, vaccine hesitancy is an understandable symptom of public distrust in scientific institutions and government intensified by chronic inaccessibility to quality and transparent health care. 

As defined by the World Health Organization, vaccine hesitancy is the “delayed acceptance or refusal of the vaccine despite availability to service,” and this has been a recurring sentiment from the invention of the first smallpox vaccine to child immunization today. Amid the panic and anxiety of a pandemic, it is easy to overlook the strides public health has made in infectious disease control through vaccinations. Still, we must remember, it is because of vaccines that we have eradicated 14 diseases otherwise dangerously prevalent in the United States, as identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the Food and Drug Administration’s approval for booster shots and pediatric doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are underway, hesitancy persists as a threat to immunization for extremely susceptible populations — from the 5 to 11-year-old population who may receive the vaccine for the first time to high-risk individuals who may benefit from boosters. Vaccination is important, and in the age of the unpredictable coronavirus and rampant misinformation, it’s even more important to know why.

Successful vaccination campaigns have led to disease eradication because of something called herd immunity. Herd immunity is a theoretical threshold of fidelity wherein a percentage of the population becomes immune to disease, significantly reducing the chance of disease spread. This percentage ranges from 70% to 90%, depending on the infectiousness of the disease. Herd immunity results in protection for the whole population, or “herd,” even for those who are not or cannot become immune, and it is achieved by either natural infection or vaccines. While natural infection will induce immunity once we actually get infected to the point of illness and complications, vaccines create preventative immunity without making us terribly sick. 

Vaccines work to stimulate the immune system by mimicking infection. They introduce weakened or dead antigens — the things that cause disease — to the body to induce an immune response and produce antibodies. Antibodies are molecules that remember specific antigens and fight them, so we don’t get sick. In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, activation of this immune response relies on the injection of viral genetic material which serves as a blueprint for our cells to make harmless viral proteins. By safely exposing us to the very thing that causes disease in a harmless, yet necessary dose, vaccines are essential in preventing us from severe disease and death. 

Populations that are vaccinated eventually reach a point of herd immunity with minimal transmission and far less morbidity. This stronghold of protection can lead to the eventual eradication of disease, as is the case with the CDC’s 14 vaccine-preventable diseases. However, in the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prominent initial hesitancy to vaccinate leaves us at a disadvantage with the emergence of the COVID-19 delta variant. The highly contagious and even more deadly delta variant is an easy threat to the unvaccinated population with a greater possibility of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated population as well.While viral variants complicate herd immunity, they do not complicate vaccination. As one of the few countries that has access to more than enough vaccines for its entire population, the United States is desperately and needlessly lagging behind in the race to vaccinate against COVID-19 variants that won’t just stop at delta. Infectious disease outbreaks are dangerously unpredictable, but we have the preventative means to ease that instability when it comes to individual clinical outcomes. Despite the biological and political volatility of the coronavirus pandemic, vaccination, and now booster shots, are a necessary step in the right direction because it is one thing we know that can keep us safe.

MiC Columnist Easheta Shah can be reached at shaheash@umich.edu.