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'Summer will be very close to normal': An epidemiologist's take on Polis' bold prediction

Gov. Polis said there should be enough vaccine doses for most Coloradans to get inoculated by the summer. Will that be enough for a safe return to normalcy?

DENVER — "I’m confident that summer we'll be very close to normal based on these vaccine [distribution] predictions that we have today," said Gov. Jared Polis during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Polis is confident most of the state will be vaccinated by May, which means Colorado could reach the crucial point of herd immunity that would get it out of the pandemic.

We took this possibility to Dr. Jonathan Samet. He is the Dean of the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz, and is also leading the COVID-19 modeling efforts that are provided to the Governor and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

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Based on the vaccine predictions, Polis says he’s confident that we’ll be close to normal by this summer. Do you agree?

Samet: I have to say, I think we’re on a faster return to normalcy every time there’s more vaccine available. I think there’s two underlying pieces of the story that are really important: One is vaccine availability, and the other is enough people taking the vaccine so we reach this point of herd immunity.

Certainly, with these very optimistic vaccine availability scenarios that are coming, it’s not going to be vaccine availability that’s going to limit us, it’s getting people shots into the arms, and also getting people to accept having a shot in the arm.

If a “close to normal” summer comes to fruition, what does that look like?

Samet: I don’t think it’s going to be like a light switch by any means…Until we see evidence that the epidemic is down and staying down, many of the things that we do that we’re tired of, like distancing and masks, we’re going to need to keep doing. They are relatively simple, they’re not so disruptive, and I think we’re going to slowly make a transition out of this to make sure that we don’t get in trouble.

There will still be groups of people who are not vaccinated, so there still will be outbreaks. But…we’re going to have to resume a normal life at some point.

So “close to normal” does include mask-wearing? Polis said this in his press conference Tuesday: “I don’t think that when you’re in grocery stores in June or July, you might still very well see people wearing masks, but I don’t think they’ll be the majority.” Do you agree?

Samet:: I think the question of how will we relax the mask mandates, and when, to me is still open. I think we will get there. This rapid upsurge in vaccine availability will make a difference. But for me, speaking from a somewhat conservative public health perspective, I would like to see that we have headed towards herd immunity, and that we know that the pandemic is truly under control.

Also, think about some of the environments, for example airplanes, where people are close together. I know they’re quite well ventilated, but I think there are these circumstances where masks will still be used.

What about capacity levels? When enough people are vaccinated, can we go back to 100% immediately in places like restaurants and stadiums?

Samet: The timing here is slow. If we make a change, for example go from 50% capacity to 75% to 100%, for each change in our transmission opportunities, we have to wait several weeks to see if there’s really been a difference.

Is that partially because the virus is new, and we have to make sure that variants or other molecular variables do not affect predictions on how COVID-19 will act with herd immunity?

Samet: That’s right. We have to do things in a somewhat, I use the word measured way, because it does take a while to find out what’s happening.

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Refresh us on what herd immunity is.

Samet: The idea is pretty simple. An epidemic can’t spread if each infected person doesn’t infect more than one person. Herd immunity comes when we have enough people who are no longer susceptible that that one infected person can’t find more than another uninfected person to infect. There’s a calculation, we have a formula and what percentage of the population needs to be immune depends on how infectious the organism is. So, for SARS COV 2, the virus responsible here, we think that we probably need 70-80 percent of the population immune in that range. There are lots of complexities, of course.

But again, even once we reach that point, it should not turn into a free for all? Because nothing is a given?

Samet: Is 70% [vaccinated] enough [for herd immunity]? Or 80%? When we think we’re there, then we’ll begin to relax and make sure we stay on course.

We also have to think about variants. The B.1.1.7. [UK variant] is here, and that has two unfortunate properties. One, it’s more transmissible, and that means that we have to be more diligent in our control. And second, it seems to be more virulent, or lethal. If the variant were to rise or the other variants that we’re hearing about now, that could be a complication for us in terms of progress.

If Colorado reaches that herd immunity point successfully, but other states don’t, does it still make sense for us to loosen restrictions in such an interconnected country?

Samet: We’re certainly all connected. You could extend the same of course to globally. That’s important as well. But if Colorado is positioned in the 70-80% vaccinated range, we are well-positioned. If some number of infected people come, the epidemic should not propagate. That’s not to say that they won’t infect some individuals, but herd immunity is sort of a population-level phenomenon.

What’s your message to Coloradans?

Samet: I think Colorado has done quite well. And I think a lot of that has been the behavior of Coloradans. We are moving towards normalcy, and I think moving towards normalcy at an ever-increasing pace.

My main message would be, hang in. And look, if it’s not June but it’s August, we should be able to live with another month or two of covering our faces or staying a little more distanced than we want.

We’ll know when the epidemic curve is down, we know when we’re seeing very few additional cases, and I think that point is in sight. We’re not there yet... The epidemic will tell us when we’re there. 

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