KEY POINTS

  • Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community develops immunity to a disease
  • COVID-19 herd immunity could be time-sensitive and may not work against future variants
  • COVID-19 herd immunity could also mean hospitalizations and deaths

The highly transmissible Omicron variant could help countries reach herd immunity as cases continue to rise, health experts said.

Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a certain population develops some type of immunity to a disease. This makes the spread of disease unlikely. Approximately 94% of the community must be immune to the disease in order to achieve "herd immunity," according to the Mayo Clinic.

"There's been a lot of talk about this being it, the big wave that's gonna finally get most people infected. It is possible that with this Omicron wave, we will reach a level of herd immunity," Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases with McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, told Fortune.

Nachman Ash, Israel's top health adviser, also said that reaching herd immunity amid the spread of the Omicron variant "is possible," but warned that case numbers would have to be very high to achieve it.

"The [infection] numbers will have to be very high in order to reach herd immunity," Ash said Sunday.

Ostrosky also warned that herd immunity, particularly with COVID-19, is time-sensitive. He added that this may not work against other variants of the virus. Relying on natural herd immunity could also mean that a lot of people who get infected with COVID-19 could end up being hospitalized or dying.

"That's why we've never sort of relied on herd immunity as a strategy to get out of the pandemic. There's a cost to it," Ostrosky added.

The U.S. is currently battling against a tsunami of Omicron cases, with health officials reporting a total of 1,082,549 new infections on Monday alone. The record single-day total was nearly double the previous number of 590,000 cases set four days before. However, delayed reporting from the holiday weekend may have played a role in the rising figures. 

Case numbers fell Wednesday but still remained high at 869,187, data compiled by Johns Hopkins University showed.

The rise of the Omicron variant and a new surge of COVID-19 cases has led to thousands of canceled flights during the holiday. Some businesses and schools have also announced temporary closures and pushed back in-person settings amid the spread of the virus.

The U.S. has now reported a total of 57,583,434 COVID-19 infections and 831,965 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. 

US President Joe Biden speaks with members of the White House Covid-19 Response Team US President Joe Biden speaks with members of the White House Covid-19 Response Team Photo: AFP / MANDEL NGAN