CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA)– The COVID-19 pandemic has lasted a lot longer than health experts predicted early on.

Back in 2020, the goal was to develop a vaccine and get to herd immunity as soon as possible, meaning, reaching a point where enough people are protected against the virus that continued spread is unlikely.

So, are we close to reaching herd immunity? And, is that the milestone required to end the pandemic?

The magic number for herd immunity was fully vaccinating between 70% and 90% of the population back in 2020. In some areas, Illinois has reached the minimum threshold, and in others, it’s close.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 69.2% of Illinoisans 5 years of age and older are fully vaccinated as of Wednesday. The rate for adults (18+), alone, was above the minimum herd immunity threshold, at 74.9%.

Epidemiologist Awais Vaid with Champaign-Urbana Public Health has been front and center in the battle against the ever-evolving coronavirus since day one. He said the state’s vaccination rate, as it stands, is not enough to call an end to the pandemic.

“We had really hoped last year at this time, after the vaccines were introduced, that we would be over it,” Vaid shared.” Then, you know, things changed again.”

With that in mind, we dove into the newest expectations for when and how we reach the end of the pandemic that’s defined the decade so far.

“Herd immunity should be achieved pretty quickly and for the entire population,” Vaid explained.

Instead, it’s taken the state of Illinois about a year to achieve that bare minimum 70% vaccination rate health officials initially leaned on, and that does not include kids under 5-years-old.

“So we are not really, you know, in essence, achieving true herd immunity,” Vaid added.

Not to mention, the higher vaccination rates are concentrated in certain areas. Vermilion County notably hovered around 40% as of Wednesday.

“We do interact with a lot of people, both local, statewide, national and even international, so that concept does not really apply as well as we have seen with other infectious diseases like measles or mumps where, you know, 90% or so of the entire population would be effective in controlling the infection,” Vaid explained.

“…It has been a little difficult to pinpoint. You know, if we get to 90% will that mean the pandemic is over? I don’t think that’s as simple as we had thought initially.”

Vaid was hopeful that a combination of continued vaccination efforts and natural immunity from the Omicron variant — which is milder for most and infecting more people — will soon lead us out of the pandemic and into an endemic phase. That means the virus is still around but there would no longer be reporting of daily infections or asymptomatic testing.

“We also don’t tell people to mask and distance anymore because that really has to do with trying to keep it at bay, but when you go into an endemic phase you treat it like influenza,” shared Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases specialist with the University of California, San Francisco.

That would mean seasonal precautions.

“We used to, you know, try to hunker down, try to avoid close proximity, try to avoid indoor gatherings during those times,” Vaid added. “I think COVID will become very similar to that in the coming months and years.”

When we’ll reach that point is not totally clear, but Vaid said he expects it to come after we’re through the latest surge in cases.

“We can estimate many things. We have been wrong a lot in the past. If it was up to me to estimate something I would say that in the next few months things will look as close to the new normal as we would expect,” he said.

The epidemiologist told us he’s been hearing about more and more people purposefully getting infected with the virus, rather than getting vaccinated. He strongly cautioned against that. Although it has resulted in more mild cases than past versions of COVID-19, there have been severe complications, and Vaid assured that risk is not worth it.

His take-home message: Get vaccinated and get boosted, because that is what’s keeping people out of the hospital.