The speed of vaccine development has been a singular achievement during the COVID-19 pandemic, although uptake has not been universal. Vaccine opponents often frame their opposition in terms of the rights of the unvaccinated. We sought to explore the impact of mixing of vaccinated and unvaccinated populations on risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection among vaccinated people.
We constructed a simple susceptible–infectious–recovered compartmental model of a respiratory infectious disease with 2 connected subpopulations: people who were vaccinated and those who were unvaccinated. We simulated a spectrum of patterns of mixing between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups that ranged from random mixing to complete like-with-like mixing (complete assortativity), in which people have contact exclusively with others with the same vaccination status. We evaluated the dynamics of an epidemic within each subgroup and in the population as a whole.
We found that the risk of infection was markedly higher among unvaccinated people than among vaccinated people under all mixing assumptions. The contact-adjusted contribution of unvaccinated people to infection risk was disproportionate, with unvaccinated people contributing to infections among those who were vaccinated at a rate higher than would have been expected based on contact numbers alone. We found that as like-with-like mixing increased, attack rates among vaccinated people decreased from 15% to 10% (and increased from 62% to 79% among unvaccinated people), but the contact-adjusted contribution to risk among vaccinated people derived from contact with unvaccinated people increased.
Although risk associated with avoiding vaccination during a virulent pandemic accrues chiefly to people who are unvaccinated, their choices affect risk of viral infection among those who are vaccinated in a manner that is disproportionate to the portion of unvaccinated people in the population.