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How close is Florida to herd immunity?

Because most people are unvaccinated, COVID-19 cases could spike again and they have not impacted hospitalization rates, according to an expert.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — For the first time since opening, the new Gateway Mall vaccination site gave close to its number of available doses Monday.

Over the weekend the new FEMA sites were giving less than half the number of vaccines they can do. 

Most people are still unvaccinated and because of that, an epidemiologist at UF Health Jacksonville says the lower hospitalization rates seem to be just another plateau of cases and have nothing to do with the vaccine.

This means COVID-19 case numbers could spike again and healthcare experts want more people to choose the vaccine.

"We don't have time to wait five, six, seven years to educate and to convince people to get this vaccine," said Director of Accreditation and Infection Prevention Chad Nielsen with UF Health Jacksonville. "We have to do it now because with these variants popping up, it's proof that if we don't get more of the population vaccinated this virus isn't going anywhere anytime soon."

Nielsen calls the number of vaccines not going into arms "troubling." Now in its first full week and with expanded eligibility, almost 1800 of the 2000 vaccines at Gateway Mall were used Monday. But according to Nielsen, vaccination rates are not the reason hospitalization rates are down.

"We don't believe that to be true at all," he said. "In public health and [epidemiology] we try and follow the trends and what we're seeing right now is similar to what we saw in the fall. If people would remember we had a large amount of cases over the summer and then those leveled off into the fall and then you saw those cases increase dramatically into the winter months and then in January. We're at a plateau right now so our cases aren't decreasing to zero. They're holding flat and so what that means is we still have that risk of another surge, particularly with the summer coming up and holidays, July 4th."

There are two ways to reach herd immunity: get the virus or get the vaccine. Recent estimates show for herd immunity to be reached, 70 to 90 percent of the population would either have to get the vaccine or be infected with the virus.

"They're saying between those who got natural immunity from actually getting COVID or those who got immunity from the shot, we might reach herd immunity by the summer," said Nielsen. "That's a nice thought. I don't think we have the evidence to show we're moving in that direction and we don't have enough evidence to know how long natural immunity really lasts in people who have had covid. But certainly we can achieve it if we get more vaccine out."

Nielsen says UF Health is averaging around 40 COVID-19 patients a day, far from the "Christmas peak" of 130, but he says half of their cases are new within the last two weeks. The cases and deaths are still coming.

Nielsen believes soon there could be travel restrictions lifted based on if you've gotten the vaccine. With the summer coming up, he's hoping that's incentive for more people to get vaccinated.

Florida is getting close to vaccinating four million people and nearly 22 million people live in the state.