The Case of the Low Hanging Fruit: Why Achieving Herd Immunity Will Take Time, If It Happens at All

Why Covid Vaccinations Are an Inverse Tragedy of the Commons

A coronavirus vaccine syringe

By Jonathan Spira on 15 April 2021
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The good news is that 50% of Americans are vaccinated, the bad news is that getting the rest to roll up their sleeves may be impossible.

An astounding figure, almost 50% of Americans – over 114 million – have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine since inoculations began in December of last year, a figure bested only by a few countries, including Israel and the United Kingdom.

The vaccination figures for the elderly and most vulnerable, including those over 65 years of age – a population that saw the coronavirus rage through care homes with tragic results – are even more astounding .  Eighty percent of Americans who are 65 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine and 63% have received both. Were all the elderly a nation unto themselves, they would be said to have achieved herd immunity.

One would assume healthcare workers, who in many cases were offered Covid vaccinations ahead of the elderly would all be fully inoculated by now, but that is not the case.  A national Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,327 health-care workers found that barely half have received their first jab by the time they were surveyed in late February and March.

The survey uncovered some disturbing trends in a population that should know better: While about 2 in 10 said that they had either scheduled a shot or were planning to, an alarming 3 of 10 said they were unsure about getting vaccinated or not planning to do so. Even more disturbing is that 1 of 6 health-care workers said that they would quit their job were their employers to mandate inoculation.

Last year, perhaps paradoxically, the number of new cases and hospitalizations began slowing down as spring progressed and the weather improved, while the opposite appears to be the case now.  Given that our elderly have effectively reached herd immunity, the virus is shifting its path to younger victims.  This can in part be accounted for by the resistance granted to the elderly by their antibodies but it also appears that the virus mutations and variants are striking more young people than the original form of the coronavirus did.

Statistics have been turned upside down.

At the start of the epidemic, before it even reached pandemic status, the infection rate was very low on average for children and teenagers and it was highest for the elderly, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now, it is the infection rate for the elderly that is low and the group where the rate is highest is for those in the 18-to-24 age bracket, with those in the 25-to-34 bracket not far behind.  Data collected by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association are that children comprised 18% of new cases in the week ending April 1, 2021.


Then there’s the issue of the vaccine hesitant. Roughly one-third of Americans say they don’t want a Covid vaccination.   Given that there are currently three million vaccinations administered every day in the United States the country will soon enter a new phase in the pandemic, namely one where there’s no longer a shortage of vaccines, but rather there will be a shortage of people to inoculate.

If the United States is to achieve herd immunity, that group of Americans must be convinced to get jabbed. In other words, persuading vaccine-hesitant people to roll up their sleeves is critical.  While it may sound simple, it’s actually a rather difficult proposition.

When dealing with vaccine skeptics, you are tackling multiple issues at the same time, a virtual one-man band, so to say.  Covid is a new disease, the vaccines are new, there’s talk of blood clots, there are clearly false rumors online that people die from the vaccine, and you’re faced with trying to persuade people who come from many different backgrounds who have varied views of the world to do something unfamiliar, and you’re trying to do it at a very rapid pace, while the disease continues to rampage many parts of the world.  The scope of this task is virtually unparalleled yet there’s no time for a learning curve.

Timing is key as we don’t have the time to explain all this away.

Starting April 9, every American over the age of 16 became eligible for a vaccination.  The truth is that not every American over the age of 16 will be making an appointment for a vaccine shot anytime soon.


“My message today is a simple one,” President Biden said on April 7 in an address from the White House. “Many states have already opened up to all adults. But beginning April 19 every adult in every state, every adult in this country, is eligible to get in line to get a Covid vaccination.”

As is almost always the case, the language and messaging that works for one group is equally likely not to work for another and could even backfire badly.

Vaccine hesitancyis a real issue that could obstruct our ability to get Covid-19 under control. A variety of factors influence vaccine hesitancy and these are largely context-specific, varying across time and place and with different vaccines. The list of factors may include complacency, convenience, and confidence, and an individual’s community or upbringing.

Hesitation towards the coronavirus is highest among a broad swath of groups including minorities, people with only a high school education or less, people who are 18 to 34 years of age, those with household incomes of $50,000 or less, and people who live in rural areas. Given the rapidly moving trajectory of the coronavirus, the task of addressing all of the various reasons for vaccine hesitancy is Herculean and the logistics to do so could resemble what was required to both develop and distribute the various coronavirus vaccines currently in use across the globe.


As everyone knows, in the “Tragedy of the Commons” Garret Hardin famously asks us to imagine a situation in economic science based on a green held in common by a village of peasants who then graze their cattle there. Grazing degrades the commons, which regrows its cover very slowly. If there is no agreed upon and enforced policy to prevent overgrazing, the peasants will eventually place as many cattle on the green as possible to extract maximum value, the resultant sea of mud be damned!

The possible outcomes include where there is no grass left, a situation in which an actor enforces an allocation policy on behalf of the village, or the break-up of the commons after each peasant begins to manage and protect only his part.

In economic science, this is when individual users, who have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social strictures or formal rules that govern access begin to act independently in accordance with their own self-interest in a manner contrary to the common good, thereby causing the depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated actions.

With coronavirus vaccinations, what we have here is a kind of inverse of the tragedy of the commons.

In this case, the more people who use what is somewhat of a scarce resource, the vaccine, the better it gets for the commons which, in this case, is humanity.

So by all means, let your cattle graze mercilessly on the common green, get both inoculations, and continue to wear a mask.  We just need to get about half of that 30% to join us.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)


Accura News

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