The COVID vaccination effort is in a race against expectations

Does the pace of vaccination indicate the U.S. will be back to normal soon?

The US has passed a new milestone in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic — more people have received the first dose of the vaccine (27 million and counting) than the total number of test-positive coronavirus cases (26 million and counting). The goal is herd immunity or the level of vaccination that shuts down the coronavirus’s ability to circulate in the population.

To achieve herd immunity, experts say that anywhere from 70% to 90% of the population must be vaccinated, equal to at least 230 million Americans. However, at just 32.7 million vaccines distributed in total, and just 6.4 million who have received the requisite two doses for full effect, the nation is still a long way from anything close to reaching a level that allows us to get back to normal.

With the advent of the vaccine, the effort to beat COVID is in large part now a race against the clock to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. Though plagued with issues at the start, the rate of vaccinations has since accelerated. According to the Centers for Disease Control, January closed out with a seven-day moving average of approximately 1.2 million new doses administered, up from just under 400,000 at the start of the month.

Rate of vaccinations necessary to achieve herd immunity by summer

However, the current rate of vaccination is far from where it needs to be in order to achieve herd immunity by summer. Current iterations of the vaccine require two doses of the vaccine in order to be more than 90% effective (having had the coronavirus already helps boost immunity too). It’s a matter of simple math. If the country were to continue along at its current pace of around 1.2 to 1.3 million doses administered per day on average, this would work out to enough shots for roughly 64% of the population to have had 1 shot — and 32% to have had two by July 1.

While President Joe Biden promised to deliver 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days in office, he acknowledges “this is just the start.” In order to jump start the nation’s progress towards herd immunity, daily distributions will need to pick up significantly. Experts say that the nation should be aiming for a target of 3 million vaccines distributed a day. In very rough numbers, even an average of 3 million doses administered would still only take the country to the lower end of the threshold needed for herd immunity.

Implications for Biden administration

The Biden administration will be judged in large part on how it handles the coronavirus pandemic. After all, one of Biden’s central selling points as a candidate was the perception that he would have a stronger plan to address COVID. Pre-election polling found that Americans consistently viewed Biden as better equipped to tackle the pandemic than former President Donald Trump.

So far, so good on that front. In his first week in office, 69% of Americans gave Biden high marks on how the administration is handling the coronavirus response.

When the public expects life to get back to “normal”

However, as the weeks and months go on, it remains to be seen whether reality and expectations will continue to align. Fortunately for Biden, few expect the pandemic to be fully under control anytime soon. Just one in five Americans expect life to revert back to a pre-COVID normalcy sometime in the next six months. More are setting their sights further out — 35% expect life to get back to normal sometime in the next six months to a year, and another 30% expect it to take more than a year.

That means that by late this summer, about half of Americans will start expecting a return to normalcy.

Many variables at play in race to vaccinate the nation

The logistical challenges around getting shots into arms is just one part of the equation in curtailing the pandemic. A number of new vaccines are in late stage clinical trials. If proven successful, these new vaccines could add to the larger supply, helping boost availability and generally speed up the process.

But there are other complexities to consider, such as new, more infectious variants of the virus. If these were to prove resistant to the vaccines in circulation now, it could set the clock back.

Vaccine skepticism could also deter from the larger goal of national herd immunity. Around 16% of Americans say they plan to “never” get the coronavirus vaccine, according to the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index. If 90% vaccination is ultimately necessary for herd immunity, this could be a hurdle, particularly for certain communities and demographic groups most opposed to the vaccine.

In conclusion

The U.S. got a slow start, but the rate of daily vaccinations has moved steadily upwards beating the initial 1 million shots a day goal set by President Biden and far outstripping the 100,000 new cases a day we are currently seeing. However, the current pace still has the vaccination effort short of meeting public expectations for being able to exit the pandemic environment by late summer.

While the Biden administration has been very focused on ramping up distribution, if 2020 taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. Skepticism of the vaccine, new variants, and politics all could derail efforts. In order to achieve the mandate set for the administration by the public, we need to see something like 3 million doses administered per day.

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Catherine Morris

Catherine Morris

Data journalist @Ipsos covering trends in public opinion around society, COVID and politics.