Medical experts in South Dakota and across the country are concerned that reluctance among some people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 may prolong the pandemic, delay a return to normal life and possibly lead to more deaths.

Health officials say that the U.S. and individual states are in a race to reach “herd immunity,” a level at which enough people are immune to the coronavirus to curtail its spread and reduce hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.

South Dakota has been a national leader in providing coronavirus vaccines to older residents and others at high risk of complications from COVID-19.

But as the vaccine rollout expanded to Phase 2, making anyone 16 and older eligible for vaccination, the demand for shots has waned and concerns have risen that herd immunity may be unobtainable.

“It’s definitely concerning, and it’s truly a race against time,” said Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health in Rapid City. “If we don’t get to that threshold of herd immunity, we could end up losing the race and having a new surge or wave of cases and unfortunately more hospitalizations and deaths.”

National surveys and reports from medical experts in South Dakota reveal that vaccine hesitancy is more common among young people, rural and low-income residents, those with lower education levels and among some religious and political groups. Misinformation about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines is seen as a common reason people are deciding not to get vaccinated.

Failure to get enough people vaccinated could allow the current COVID-19 pandemic to linger and raises the likelihood that coronavirus variants, which appear to spread faster and more easily, would take hold and spread freely even among those who were vaccinated against the original version of the virus, Kurra said.

South Dakota medical experts will be watching closely over the next month or so to see if vaccination rates remain stable now that eligibility has expanded to the largest population group so far.

Meagan Jensen, 25, is an agriculture teacher at Sturgis High School who has followed the progress of the vaccination effort in the news and has so far decided not to get vaccinated. Jensen, a graduate of South Dakota State University who now lives in Rapid City, said she is well aware of the risks of serious illness from COVID-19 and has gone “back and forth” on whether to get vaccinated.

See full story in this week’s Leader-Courier.