Herd immunity, while scientifically appropriate, is an unfortunate term to throw at Americans. We think of a herd as something that is rounded up, put into pens and then slaughtered. We don’t want to be treated like cattle.
So how are we supposed to react to a pandemic? We know that some diseases spread quickly and can be lethal. Think of typhoid fever, polio or the 1918 flu, which killed some of our ancestors. Vaccines have eliminated the risk of catching them today. Scientists studying such diseases in animals discovered some time ago that immunizing a substantial percentage of the herd soon stops the spread of the disease.
Immunizing a herd of cattle is relatively easy, but democracies don’t round up their citizens and force 70% of them to get vaccinated. As citizens we are in charge of our own decisions, but perhaps we should consider how our decisions affect the people around us.
If your friends and neighbors start dropping like flies from COVID-19, you will likely take it seriously. But what if you don’t know anyone who is really sick from the virus? You only hear about it on the news. Or you may know people who got sick but seemed to get over it. So you decide to skip the vaccination. If you don’t get sick you feel justified in your decision. You may even decide not to wear a mask. You may feel proud that you made your decision independently, but you overlook the fact that you may be infecting others who will get really sick.
Here is where herd immunity makes sense. Vaccinating around 70% of our population is sufficient to keep the virus from spreading. If most people in our community decide not to get vaccinated, the virus and its new variants will continue to spread, with dire consequences for some of the unvaccinated. To date in Umatilla County, nearly 3,000 people have been infected with it, and 87 of them have died. We don’t know how many others who caught the disease have lingering health problems.
As a community we are not a herd of cattle, but we are in close contact with other people every day. No one is forcing us to be vaccinated, but by refusing to get vaccinated we are gambling not only with our own health but with the health of those around us.