Vaccine is 'our ticket back to normalcy,' but experts warn herd immunity is months away

Cheering on your favorite sports team in a packed stadium. Singing along with musicians at a sold-out concert. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers at a bar. Pushing through a sea of people at a popular street festival.

Unmasked, full-capacity crowds may feel like something of a distant memory to Illinois residents and business owners, who have been experiencing varying extents of COVID-19 restrictions since an initial stay-at-home order took effect more than 10 months ago.

As communities now ramp up vaccination efforts, suburban medical experts say it'll still be months before enough people are protected against the virus to allow the economy to reopen at pre-pandemic levels. But they see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“This vaccine is our ticket back to normalcy,” said Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director of infection control and prevention at Edward Hospital in Naperville.

Some health officials are optimistic state mitigations will be lifted this summer or fall for businesses such as restaurants, shops and salons. The hospitality industry could begin to rebound around the same time, as gatherings resume and business travel picks up.

Dr. Samir Kumar, chief medical officer at Amita Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, predicts fans could return to sporting events and concerts in the second half of 2021 with social distancing and attendance limitations in place. But he says it could be another year or more before indoor entertainment venues and arenas welcome back tens of thousands at a time.

“The only way to truly economically recover is to defeat the virus,” Kumar said. “Anything we do until then is short-term.”

Businesses hit hardest by the pandemic are desperate for some relief, said Jon Ridler, Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce executive director. While some have shut down or gone bankrupt, he said, many that remain are distressed and eager to “regain control of running their businesses as they need.”

“There is optimism and skepticism for the idea the vaccine will produce herd immunity that is needed to live without state-mandated restrictions,” he said.

Herd immunity

The threshold for achieving herd immunity varies by disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts don't know yet what percentage of people would need to get vaccinated to make the spread of the COVID-19 virus unlikely, but local immunologists suggest the magic number falls somewhere between 70% and 85%.

Natural immunity among the roughly 10% of the population who already have fought off the infection also could play a role, Pinsky said.

“This is an important area of research and will likely vary according to the community, the vaccine, the populations prioritized for vaccination and other factors,” Illinois Department of Public Health officials said in a statement. “This makes it all the more critical that all people get vaccinated when it is their turn.”

In Lake County, the goal is to vaccinate at least 560,000, or 80%, of its roughly 700,000 residents, health department Executive Director Mark Pfister said. Shots have been administered to more than 20,000 people in the first month.

County health officials are working with school districts, corporations, pharmacies and other community partners to ramp up distribution plans, he said. But the timing of the rollout depends on several factors, including how many people are willing to be vaccinated and how quickly an adequate number of doses will be allocated.

“The demand is exceeding the supply,” Pfister said. “We've got an awesome, effective tool in the form of a vaccine, but it's going to take many months until we can build herd immunity.”

Now is not the time to let your guard down, said Dr. Dan Boyle, infectious disease physician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield and Delnor Hospital in Geneva.

Trials have shown the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are about 95% effective when two doses are administered. But uncertainty remains over how well the shots protect against asymptomatic infection and transmission, or other variants of the disease, experts said.

“We still have to be very careful,” Boyle said. “We still have to wear masks and social distance until we really reach that herd immunity. Unfortunately, there's no way around it.”

'There is hope'

With an abundance of factors at play, experts say it's difficult to predict when Illinois will reopen all sectors of the economy and move into Phase 5 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's Restore Illinois plan.

In that stage, operations could resume at venues such as the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center and the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, where teams are reconfiguring schedules in hopes of reopening this summer, “at least at some level,” Mayor Brad Stephens said.

“We're holding dates and moving things forward little by little,” he said. “We're ready. We're optimistic.”

As more people are vaccinated, new case counts and hospitalization rates drop, and the prevalence of the virus declines in the coming months, Kumar said, “we should be able to open a lot of businesses ... as long as we're responsible.”

The 18 hotels in Naperville have been the city's hardest-hit businesses, followed closely by restaurants and other hospitality venues, said Christine Jeffries, president of the Naperville Development Partnership.

Though indoor dining will likely become more widespread in the next few weeks, she said, community leaders are eyeing June as “really being the turning point” for reviving the local economy. That's when she predicts weddings will be rescheduled, travel will resume, employees will return to the office and families will begin gathering in groups again.

The Illinois Restaurant Association has been urging the state to prioritize restaurant and hospitality workers in its vaccine distribution plans, which would “provide critical support to our struggling industry,” President and CEO Sam Toia said in a statement.

The Arlington Heights business community has suffered under the state's “one-mitigation-fits-all approach,” forcing establishments to temporarily shut down or adapt to evolving guidelines, Ridler said. But many see the presence of a vaccine as a good sign.

“There is hope,” Ridler said. “Hope that government grants will cover some of the financial losses, hope that consumers will return, hope that the workforce will be strong to fill the open jobs, hope that the entrepreneurial spirit of small business owners will be restored.”

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