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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Westneat: Pay people to get vaccine

By Danny Westneat
Published: July 2, 2021, 6:01am

Gov. Jay Inslee was doing his best barker routine the other day — exhorting, pleading, and ultimately luring with shiny objects, as he tried to get the holdouts and skeptics to step inside the tent.

“Why the heck would you not get this vaccination?” he said. “It could save your life, and it’s free! It has the added benefit of protecting everybody around you that you love!”

“If that’s not enough,” he added later, “you could still win cash or other prizes through Shot of a Lifetime.”

Washington has done a decent job, overall, at getting vaccinated up. Sixty-eight percent of people 16 and older have had at least one shot, and about 60 percent are fully vaccinated. But we’re stuck. The number of shots each day is on a steady slide, with data starting to suggest that one-third of the state’s adults may not get fully vaccinated no matter what.

It’s pretty clear the lottery giveaways — the weekly cash prizes of $250,000 and the Xboxes and sports tickets and so forth — aren’t working. There was a brief blip up in daily shots after the lottery was announced June 3, but that appears to have been mostly a data artifact due to a lull in shots over the Memorial Day holiday.

Bottom line: The number of shots being given today is well below when the lottery started, despite a $1 million jackpot coming up July 13.

It’s been the same in other states, too. “Million dollar lotteries fail to cut through vaccine apathy,” headlined a data analysis by Politico. The best that can be said is that the lotteries may have slowed a decline in shots.

I took a look at some of Washington’s most vaccine resistant counties, and they’ve barely budged since the lottery began. Take Stevens County for instance, north of Spokane. On June 3, when the lottery was introduced, 30 percent of adults there had at least one shot. Today, it has budged to 32 percent.

“It’s just not working,” Irwin Redlener of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University said about lotteries. “People aren’t buying it.”

Reporters last week pressed Inslee: We’ve got mobile clinics, the lottery, the “joints for jabs.” It’s all a good try but isn’t moving the needle. “What else can the state do to reach the folks who are hesitant to get the shots?” one asked.

I have an idea. Shaming them doesn’t work. I’m not a believer in making the vaccine mandatory (it wouldn’t be worth the political firestorm). So how about just paying them?

The lottery isn’t on the radar screen because it’s too amorphous. But if the state said they’d give you a hundred bucks or so to get vaccinated, I bet that would motivate the masses.

New Mexico recently did it — they gave $100 per vaccination for a four-day period, and saw a surge in shots. Businesses are trying it too: On Amazon’s job ads, it says “New hires who show proof of their COVID-19 vaccination earn a $100 bonus their first day.”

Americans love money. Green is the one color that always unites us, blue and red counties alike.

Now I realize paying the hesitants, the holdouts and the full-on cranks won’t be popular with the 68 percent who did the right thing for nothing. I hear from a lot of readers saying: “Forget them — I’m vaccinated, so it’s their problem if they spread a virus among themselves.”

But it doesn’t work quite like that. Outbreaks among the unvaccinated are going to lead to business closures and other societal disruptions for months to come. Plus there’s the ongoing threat to people who for health reasons can’t get vaccinated.

So pay the holdouts. The state has $134 million left from its federal relief money. At, say, $100 for a two-shot course, that’s enough money to vaccinate more than a million adults. Which would bring Washington to 80 percent — herd immunity.

If that’s not enough, pay them $200. Yes it’s maybe sad, and cynical, that this is what it takes. But millions of Americans still believe the virus is hyped up or a political hoax. The one thing that might pierce that level of mind-meld resistance is the only thing that ever does, money.

Guaranteed the price for not doing so will prove to be considerably higher.