GREENWOOD — As the nation waits anxiously for the approval and distribution of the first COVID-19 vaccines, there is an underlying uncertainty about the prospect.
Even when this life-saving medicine becomes available, how many people will take the shots?
The polling suggests not enough. The Gallup organization has been tracking for months the public’s willingness to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. It peaked in June at 66%, dropped to 50% in September, but was back up to 58% in November.
The numbers are not a surprise. The attitude of many Americans toward vaccination runs between indifference to distrust. Only about half of U.S. adults get the flu vaccine every year, which is one reason that tens of thousands of people in this country die from the flu annually.
Flu vaccines, though, have been around for decades. The COVID-19 vaccine, like the disease itself, is novel. Thus there is bound to be an even greater leeriness toward it until sufficient numbers are inoculated and people are reassured that it is safe.
Donald Trump’s approach to the pandemic hasn’t helped build confidence in the vaccines either. There was a fear during the height of the presidential campaign that Trump, for political purposes, was pushing for emergency approval of the vaccines so as to shore up his reelection chances. Now that he has been defeated by Joe Biden, some of that concern may be softening.
It is going to be critical for participation levels to be high if the pandemic is to be tamed and life return to a semblance of normality by next summer, as is now the optimistic prediction.
Experts estimate that 70% of the population has to acquire immunity from COVID-19, either from being infected by the virus or through vaccination, to reach herd immunity — the point at which the pandemic would peter out.
As with the virus, there’s still much to learn about the vaccines. In trials, their results have been nothing short of amazing. The first two vaccines out of the chute have reported better than 90% effectiveness, compared to about 50% effectiveness for flu shots.
We don’t know, though, how long the immunity will last, even after getting the required two rounds of vaccine. Nor do we know if those who are inoculated could still be asymptomatic carriers of the virus, infecting others even while they themselves are protected. The severity of the pandemic requires that scientists just figure some of that out on the fly.
So, as the vaccines become available in a phased-in distribution, how do we get people to roll up their sleeves and get the shots?
John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, says we need to pay them.
In a recent op-ed column, Delaney proposed tying vaccine compliance to the next round of stimulus checks. He recommends paying $1,500 to every American who provides proof of vaccination.
The proposal would accomplish two goals, he said. It would help buffer the economy for the next anticipated downturn coming from the latest surge in COVID-19. And it would significantly boost immunization numbers.
“We have to embrace the power of incentives, specifically in the context of vaccines,” Delaney wrote. “In India, a study showed that providing even a small incentive, lentils and plates in one case, increased vaccination rates six-fold. Imagine how well a $1,500 check would do. This will save lives and rid us of this plague. This is an incentive that will cut through the nonsense like nothing else, fast.”
Some might rebel against the idea of paying people to do something that could save their lives and the lives of others. It could be argued that if Americans won’t voluntarily get immunized, the government should force the issue.
There are ways that could be done.
Senior citizens, the population group most vulnerable to bad complications from COVID-19, could be required to pay a Medicare surcharge if they aren’t immunized. School attendance could be conditioned on proof of immunization. Employers could be required to provide the government with documentation showing their workers have been vaccinated, with liability protection against lawsuits should any employees have adverse side effects from the vaccine.
One approach uses a carrot to encourage vaccination, the other uses a stick.
It may take some of both — plus an appeal to patriotism — to get this country to herd immunity as fast as possible.
We are on the brink of being able to beat this scourge. It would be a tragedy to drag it out and run the death toll up higher than it would otherwise be.
Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth.