It’s not six months, which is a timeframe continually quoted in media. Let’s crunch the numbers in the name of public health transparency.
There are approximately 331 million people who live in the United States (Popclock); 23.6% of whom are under the age of 18 (KFF); the Moderna vaccine is restricted to those 18+ and the Pfizer vaccine to those 16+ (NY Times). Anthony Fauci says that for the USA to reach herd immunity, 70% to 90% of people have to be vaccinated (Market Watch). Keep in mind that the US has yet to actually reach herd immunity for any virus (Nature) and that approximately 20% of people don’t want to take the vaccine, while 30% of people want to “wait a while until others have taken it,” leaving only perhaps 50% of people willing to take the vaccine as soon as it is available to them (USA Today).
Let’s say 70% of the US population eligible for the vaccine (roughly 260 million people; NY Times) get properly vaccinated with both doses: that means 182 million people will have been vaccinated. Between Pfizer and Moderna, current contracts with the US government will only vaccinate 150 million US residents, leaving a needed minimum of 32 million people unvaccinated and 78 million people in the US unvaccinated.
So, just make more vaccines, right? It’s not that simple. The amount of vaccine Pfizer and Moderna can produce by mid-2021 is already reliant upon access to better supplies. Even if the Defense Production Act is used by the Biden-Harris administration to produce more vaccines, it’s not clear if the production numbers already purchased will be met on the promised schedule. Another supplier, likely Johnson & Johnson and later, AstraZeneca, will likely have to pick up the slack — and those vaccines have not yet been approved for use in the USA.
Even if enough vaccines are produced and purchased by the US, our administration numbers for the vaccine have, so far, been abysmal. Federal officials said in December that the goal was to have 20 million people get their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine before the end of 2020 (NY Post). But as of December 30th, the CDC COVID Data Tracker says that only a little over 12.4 million doses (combination of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) have been sent out, yet only 2.8 million people have received their first dose (NY Times).
Additionally, there are healthcare workers declining to receive the vaccine (C-SPAN). There’s a case of a hospital employee in Wisconsin intentionally ruining 57 vials of vaccine, leading to the ruin of almost 500 doses (NPR). 42 people in West Virginia received antibodies to the virus instead of the vaccine (MSN). 1 in 6 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have had to be thrown out due to confusing labeling (Stat). We can cross our fingers that these are all isolated cases but it is more likely that mistakes, maleficence, and refusal will continue.
If we’re generous with our numbers and say the current rollout rate for the first dose of the vaccines are 1.5 million people per week (the first vaccine was administered outside of clinical trials on December 14th and today is January 2nd; NY Times), we’re going to be at this a long time. 1.5 million initial doses per week for an eligible population of 260 million will take 173 weeks — a little over 3 years — to administer. Don’t forget that all of the vaccinated people will have to have their second dose correctly administered, too; this will cause further delays due to more people needing to be on site to receive their second shots even while other people are still receiving (and waiting to receive) their first shots.
If we’re really generous with our numbers and say that the rollout happens at the rate that the vaccine was sent out — 6.2 million doses per week — then the eligible population of 260 million will take 41.9 weeks, or nearly a year, for all 260 million people to be vaccinated. If we are generous with herd immunity and say that between 182 and 234 million people need to be vaccinated, that will take 30 to 37.7 weeks for the first dose, only, to be administered. That would take us from mid-July to late August — for the first doses, only. Add another 4-6 weeks for the second doses to be administered, which leaves us in early to late August through late September to mid-October. And this is being very, very generous.
Long story less long, it’s not six months until “life goes back to normal.” It’s not this summer. Expect social distancing and other measures to continue for at least another year.