Let’s work together to get the whole ‘herd’ vaccinated against COVID-19

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

One down, one to go. And one step closer toward some sort of normalcy.

The weekend before this month’s Today’s Farmer went to press, my husband and I received our first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a mass immunization clinic at the University of Missouri. The state’s vaccination phase that in­cludes agriculture and communica­tions was activated March 15, and we were both eligible. I know some people have had adverse reactions to the shot, but the only thing I felt afterward was relief.

This time last year, COVID-19 had shut down everything from schools to restaurants to workplaces. Here we are, only 12 months later, and multiple vaccines are already battling the virus. Still, we need many more people to be vaccinated before we can end the pandemic.

The term “herd immunity” keeps getting thrown around in relation to COVID-19 prevention. Those of us who understand livestock produc­tion can certainly relate. When you vaccinate one animal, you make the whole herd healthier. The more you vaccinate, the more you ensure that disease cannot be spread easily through the group.

It works similarly in humans. Vaccines protect more than just the vaccinated person. They create im­munity without making people sick, and every vaccinated person adds to the effectiveness of community-level protection. For example, after the chickenpox vaccine debuted in 1995, death rates from the illness dropped in the U.S. by as much as 97%, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Hopefully, that vaccine means my children will nev­er have to know the discomfort of being covered head-to-toe in those itchy, red bumps.

The percentage needed achieve herd immunity varies with each disease. Herd immunity against measles requires about 95% of a population to be vaccinated. The remaining 5% will be protected by the fact that measles will not spread. For polio, it’s 80%. The percentage that must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to reach herd immunity is not known, but it’s an important area of research right now.

Ultimately, a vaccine is only effective if people use it. The rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine has caused some concern that the process was rushed. Indeed, creating a vaccine in less than one year is no small feat. Under normal circumstances, making a vaccine can take 10 to 15 years because of the complexity of development. The fastest vaccine ever developed—for mumps—still took four years.

The urgency of the current pan­demic, however, spurred unprece­dented global cooperation for the vaccine development. First of all, scientists didn’t have to start from scratch. They’ve been studying coro­naviruses for decades, so they were able to leverage existing data. Recent advances in genomic sequencing allowed them to quickly uncover the COVID-19 viral sequence. Plus, tremendous financial support from the U.S. government allowed newer, faster vaccine technology to be used and expedited vaccine distribution.

As availability of the vaccine grows, it does appear that more people—including farmers—are willing to take it. In the Purdue Ag Economy Barometer survey in January, conducted after nationwide vaccinations got under way, 58% of farmers said they plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine. When asked in October, only 24% said they would.

I hope that number continues to rise. Until we reach herd immunity, the agricultural workforce is among groups more prone to infection. The average age of U.S. farmers is nearly 60, putting much of that population in the high-risk bracket. My dad, who farms in Tennessee and will soon be 73, has already had both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

By the time this magazine reaches you, anyone in the food and agri­culture sector will be eligible for vaccination in MFA’s trade territory. In Missouri, all state residents will be eligible on April 9. The timing is critical. Going into spring, we need to keep everyone healthy to get crops planted and livestock tended.

In agriculture, we talk a lot about trusting science, not perceptions or misinformation. When it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19, we need to use the best science and information available. The website, MOStopsCovid.com, is filled with facts and answers to questions about the vaccine. You can also register for vaccinations in your area on the site.

I know that getting vaccinations is an absolutely personal choice. And I know some reluctance remains. But I encourage you to learn more before making the decision. I’m on my way to joining the herd. I hope you choose to join me.