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Herd immunity ‘falling by the wayside' as demand for vaccine goes down

Vaccine providers are trying to make getting a shot easier. As more people get vaccinated, more restrictions can be loosened.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — More than 7 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been given in North Carolina and just over 30% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.

In Mecklenburg County, 28% of the population is fully vaccinated and almost 40% is partially vaccinated. County leaders said there's enough supply, but now there's a lack of urgency.

Herd immunity has been a buzzword throughout vaccine distribution. But with demand for the shots going down, some health experts said it may be further away, or completely out of reach.

“I think this idea of herd immunity is kind of falling by the wayside. I think there’s this realization that enough people in society have said they're not going to be vaccinated," Dr. David Priest with Novant Health said. "I think it’s unlikely that we're going to reach a state where at a certain date we've gone down to almost nothing because everyone’s vaccinated and off we go. I think that’s a decision that we as a society have made."

RELATED: Mecklenburg County health director says vaccine hesitancy could be a roadblock for lifting COVID-19 restrictions

Just a few months ago, vaccine providers were desperate for more COVID-19 shots, but now the tables have turned.

“Novant Health including New Hanover Regional Medical Center has deferred allocation for this week as we have enough supply that we are working through,” Priest said.

By now the people who really wanted a shot got one.

“There’s been a slowdown in the number of people signing up for vaccination,” Dr. Lewis McCurdy with Atrium Health said.

To fix that, vaccine providers in Mecklenburg County are shifting focus. Bringing vaccines directly to communities and doing away with mass vaccination sites.

“The need for Bojangles Coliseum in the community is just less,” Dr. Meg Sullivan, the Medical Director in Mecklenburg County, said.

RELATED: Young, healthy adults should get a COVID-19 vaccine, medical experts say

Health Director Gibbie Harris said there are some people in the county who just won't get vaccinated. But she also thinks there’s a group of people who will, they're just waiting for it to be more convenient.

“The hope is as we shift our processes and our locations and the way that we make ourselves available to the community that those numbers will continue to go up,” Harris said. “So, we're staying focused on herd immunity at this point."

The longer it takes to get more people vaccinated, the more likely it is for more variants to pop up, perpetuating the same cycle.

“It’s going to be something that circulates in our communities much like the flu does now. Even though COVID is more serious illness than the flu, and will likely require boosters, over time the hospitals will have to be prepared to deal with those patients maybe on a seasonal basis,” Priest said.

RELATED: Removing barriers in COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Mecklenburg County

Friday, fully vaccinated people won't have to wear masks outdoors. But if vaccination rates continue to slow, it puts removing them indoors in jeopardy.

“I don’t anticipate the mask mandate indoors being lifted soon. I think our numbers are still high enough at this point where that needs to be in place. Again, we just need people to step up,” Harris said.

Gov. Roy Cooper said two-thirds of the population will need to be vaccinated before he rolls back the mask mandate completely. Harris said it’s unlikely we'll reach that point in Mecklenburg County by June 1.

 “As people begin to see the opportunity to do more things if they’re fully vaccinated, I think that will serve as an incentive,” she said.

The vaccination clinic at Bojangles Coliseum will close on May 22. StarMed Healthcare will be opening a second permanent site on Central Avenue in its place.

Have a relative or friend in another state and want to know when they can get vaccinated? Visit NBC News' Plan Your Vaccine site to find out about each state's vaccine rollout plan. 

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.