Pennsylvania’s battle against COVID-19 took a dramatic turn Tuesday — 412 days after all non-life sustaining businesses were temporarily shuttered early in the pandemic — as the focus shifted away from restrictions and toward vaccinations to curb future outbreaks.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced he is lifting all of the state’s COVID-19 mitigation measures starting Memorial Day, except for his order requiring face masks. That will stay in place until 70% of Pennsylvania adults 18 and older are fully vaccinated.

The plan is intended to boost waning interest in vaccinations.

The Lancaster County Community Vaccination Center, for example, began accepting same-day, walk-in appointments shortly after Pennsylvania opened vaccine eligibility April 19 to Pennsylvanians 16 and older. Previously, demand was so great that the mass vaccination center used a lottery system to dole out appointments.

As of May 4, 23.2% of those 16 and older in Pennsylvania had received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 44.8% were fully vaccinated, state Health Department data shows.

Nationally, 31.8% of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state’s current masking order requires masks indoors and, if away from home, outdoors, unless fully vaccinated.

Wolf’s 70% vaccination mandate is an effort to push Pennsylvania closer to reaching herd immunity. But it’s unclear how the public will know when Pennsylvania has reached Wolf’s goal because the state’s vaccination data includes 16 year olds.

State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster County, said the governor’s announcement signals a return to normalcy. Aument serves on the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Joint Task Force.

“While the restrictions that were put in place at the outset of the pandemic have been a major source of frustration for many Pennsylvanians and businesses, it is the collaborative work of this bipartisan Task Force that is allowing us to finally roll back the restrictions and get back to normal life,” Aument said in a press release.

‘Vaccine hesitancy is a head wind’

Herd immunity is when a sufficient number of people — either through infection or vaccination — have protection against a disease so that it defends the wider population because the virus cannot find new hosts to infect.

Herd immunity has been touted as the only way to eradicate COVID-19.

The precise threshold required is unknown.

The rule of thumb, though, is this: the more transmissible a disease, the higher the percentage of a population needs to be immune from it.

Epidemiologists have suggested 60% to 70% might be required to reach herd immunity, although Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has suggested COVID-19 could require 90%.

“From my perspective, vaccine hesitancy is a head wind against our reaching the 70% threshold,” Lancaster County Commissioner Craig Lehman, said in a text to LNP | LancasterOnline.

While a lofty goal, the 70% threshold may not be necessary to see a real impact in the battle against COVID-19.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, pointed to Israel.

An analysis published last month shows that Israel saw a 77% drop in COVID-19 cases in a little more than two months after a national campaign. 

Israel has one of the highest vaccination rates per capita, with 48.8% of those 16 years and older having received the first dose, 34% the second and 7.5% recovered.

"We will see benefits and we have seen benefits," Adalja said. "Herd immunity isn't the be all, end all."

Wolf’s announcement Tuesday came as President Joe Biden set a July 4 goal of fully vaccinating 160 million people and getting at least one shot into the arms of 70% of the adult population.

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