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Governor says Texas is ‘very close’ to herd immunity. Health experts disagree

April 12, 2021 Updated Mon., April 12, 2021 at 9:36 p.m.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks March 17 during a news conference in Dallas.  (LM Otero)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks March 17 during a news conference in Dallas. (LM Otero)
By Nicole Cobler Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas – Gov. Greg Abbott said Texas is “very close” to reaching herd immunity, an assessment that runs counter to recent comments by health experts and his own medical adviser.

Speaking to Fox News on Sunday, Abbott touted the state’s relatively low COVID-19 numbers. After dropping below 3,000 hospitalizations statewide on March 31 for the first time since June 17, the number of hospitalizations has hovered just above 2,800.

“We absolutely are not declaring victory at this time,” he said when asked about how numbers remain low despite his decision last month to lift the statewide mask mandate and pandemic business restrictions. Health experts warned the move could lead to spikes in cases and hospitalizations. “We remain very vigilant and guarded and proactive in our response.”

Nearly 40,000 Rangers fans, many without masks, packed Globe Life Park in Arlington for the team’s home opener last week, marking the first full-capacity sporting event in the U.S. in over a year.

“There’s simple math behind the reason why we still continue to have success,” Abbott said Sunday, adding vaccinations have increased and there are a number of people who have some level of natural immunity through a previous infection, which means, “very simply, it’s a whole lot more difficult for COVID-19 to be spreading to other people in the state of Texas.”

More than 70% of seniors have received a vaccine in Texas. More than 50% of Texans between 50 and 65 years old have received a shot, Abbott added.

“I don’t know what herd immunity is but when you add it to the people who have acquired immunity, it looks like it could be very close to herd immunity,” he said.

Estimates vary on what percent of the population must be protected from the virus to reach herd immunity, the point at which each infected person transmits the disease to an average of fewer than one other person, and it starts to die out. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has said the number could be as high as 85%.

Abbott’s own medical adviser, Dr. John Zerwas, told the American-Statesman earlier this month that even if the goal is 70%, “we’ve got a ways to go.” He added that the rising number of vaccinated Texans could be slowing the spread of the virus.

Other health experts were less optimistic. Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the UT COVID-19 modeling consortium, attributed the drop in coronavirus numbers to changes in behaviors and policies at the local level.

“I don’t think we can yet attribute it definitively to vaccination,” she said. “We will eventually see the impact of vaccines. At some point we will really get to the point where even if we relaxed measures, transmission levels will be low, but we are just not there yet.”

It’s not clear exactly what percentage of Texans currently have some kind of immunity through vaccination or previous infection. Roughly 32% of Texans have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. (Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots to full vaccination, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single dose.)

Roughly 19% of Texans are fully vaccinated.

The state’s large youth population also will make it more difficult for the state to reach herd immunity. People under 16 have not been approved to receive a coronavirus vaccine, and only the Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for 16- and 17-year-olds. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are authorized for people 18 and older.

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