Some Americans are scared of vaccines in general and some are scared of this one in particular because of how politicized the fight against covid-19 became. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than half of Americans get the annual flu shot, even though the flu shot is inexpensive and often free, widely available and requires just a single dose. A recent poll showed that only 58 percent of Americans are willing to get the covid-19 vaccine as soon as possible. That’s down from 69 percent who were willing this summer. Worse still, Rob Jekielek of Harris Poll told STAT, “there’s a historical level of distrust” regarding a covid-19 vaccine among the communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
Such a widespread aversion to covid vaccination could risk a lamentable squandering of one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of medical technology and vaccine development. Many thousands of Americans would die unnecessarily.
The solution is simple: Pay people to take a covid vaccine. The vaccines are likely to arrive at the same moment Washington is, belatedly, taking up much-needed stimulus legislation. The timing couldn’t be better: Money would go into Americans’ pockets just when the U.S. economy can begin fully reopening with a vaccinated population that can go about their daily lives without fear of catching the disease or infecting others.
To that end, the federal government should pay every American $1,500 to get vaccinated. Send proof of vaccination, receive a $1,500 check or money via direct deposit.
Such an incentive might be the most effective way to persuade people to overcome suspicion or even fear of vaccines that, like so much else about the pandemic, became politicized during an election year. As Paul Offit, an attending physician in the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in September, just as the Trump administration had politicized mask-wearing and social-distancing rules, so had rhetoric about the race to develop a vaccine made many people worry that safety measures weren’t being followed.
Many Americans were understandably “skittish” about the vaccines, Offit said, yet “they can take comfort in the fact that many people in supervisory positions, as well as a cadre of independent, academic scientists standing behind them, are monitoring this process and looking out for the public’s best interests.”
Other public health officials have offered similar reassurances, but skittishness among much of the public appears slow to subside. That could be disastrous. As infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci has noted, at least 75 percent of the population will need to be vaccinated for the country to return to normal. That level of vaccination would provide protection for the population at-large, including those who are unable to take the vaccine for medical reasons.
Cash payments would function as a double-stimulus. They would provide relief to struggling Americans, as the stimulus earlier this year did, but they also would accelerate the reopening of the economy. That’s worth the cost. The key variable that has been missing from the stimulus debate in Washington has been not money but time. Time really matters: The sooner Americans get relief, the better. The sooner the federal government can reduce spending on enhanced unemployment insurance, on the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses and on state and local aid, the better. And the sooner the federal government can start getting revenue from income taxes for people who are back to work and from businesses that are reopening at full capacity, the better.
So, despite the price of approximately $383 billion if every American adult over 18 took advantage of the program, this would be the fiscally responsible thing to do — in addition to its being a life-saving boon for public health.
Would $1,500 encourage more people to get vaccinated? It turns out there’s evidence that financial incentives do increase vaccination rates. A study in India found that giving lentils at each vaccination and a set of plates during the final vaccination increased the vaccination completion rate by a factor of six.
In my life, I have found many examples of people underestimating the power of incentives but rarely any examples of people overestimating them. Incentives work. Let’s use them.
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