Would a free beer help people get past COVID vaccine hesitancy? How about cash?

·4 min read

Millions of people in Texas and around the nation are behaving as if the coronavirus pandemic is largely over, taking the huge drops in cases, hospitalizations and deaths as signs that it’s time to get back to a full life.

They’re not wrong, but there’s a threat to this delicate victory: a stark decline in the number of people stepping up to get vaccinated.

It seems odd after months of people scrambling for an appointment and fierce arguments about who should be able to get the shot. Now, it’s basically available on a walk-up or same-day basis, yet fewer people want it.

In Tarrant County, public health director Vinny Taneja told county commissioners Tuesday, “we would open up to long lines, 350-400 people in the first hour at each site, to now doing 400 people per day at our sites.”

It’s a troubling trend because the battle is not yet won. COVID-19 remains a threat and may for a long time. Taneja, while acknowledging tremendous progress in recent weeks, noted slight recent upticks in hospitalizations and cases serious enough to require intensive care.

Vaccine hesitancy is high in several demographic groups. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to winning them over. Community leaders and doctors need to target their messages and continue to get creative.

County Judge Glen Whitley told the Editorial Board that three groups have high rates of vaccine hesitancy: staunchly conservative Republicans, Hispanics who fear interacting with police or government officials, and Black residents, especially older ones swayed by the history of mistreatment and sometimes experimentation by doctors.

VACCINE HESITANCY REASONS

The good news is that, when you drill down on hesitancy, you find many people are firmly in a wait-and-see mode rather than outright refusal to ever get it. An encouraging Harris poll suggests that’s true even in groups that are prone to hesitancy. For some, it’s a matter of convenience, so the ready supply and increasing number of venues for shots should work over time.

For those in the wait-and-see category, it’s important to spread the right messages about vaccination: that it works, that it’s safe and that it’s the pathway to normalcy and greatly reduced fear about getting sick or carrying the virus to your loved ones.

Creativity helps, too, and leaders are looking at incentives to help persuade people to get inoculated. Whitley has mentioned the possibility of paying people to get it at a rate of $50 per person. The county would need federal clearance to spend $100 million of relief money that way, but it could be fruitful.

Elsewhere, rewards include a free beer at a local brewery for New Jersey residents getting the shot in May. Houston residents may be able to score a bobblehead doll of Astros star Jose Altuve (no word if it comes with a trash can for signaling teammates on what pitch is coming next), according to the Texas Tribune.

But there’s only so much local leaders can do to nudge behavior. A continuing concern is finding messengers trusted enough in various groups to open minds. City and county officials are not well known enough to move many residents.

COVID MESSAGE MESS

Federal officials are better known, but they’ve consistently made things worse. The message should be that vaccination is the pathway to freedom of movement and association and yes, eventually getting out from behind masks. A large portion of the country has tuned them out.

The regrettable decision to temporarily halt the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over a minuscule number of cases of blood clots did not send the message that the vaccines are receiving the highest scrutiny, as leaders hoped. You can track the drop in vaccination rates from the moment the J&J shot was pulled. Of course leaders should be upfront about possible side effects, but the handling of this very minor complication was all wrong.

People need to hear from their own doctors, if they have one. A call from the office offering up — and recommending — shots would help overcome theoretical objections. Neighbors can, gently and politely, talk about why they’ve gotten vaccinated.

Religious leaders, too, should take the lead. Even the Trump-loving pastor of the influential First Baptist Church in Dallas, Robert Jeffress, is trying to reach conservative evangelicals by scheduling a vaccine clinic at the church. Smaller churches may not have the resources for that, but one-on-one outreach can’t hurt.

It appears herd immunity will be elusive, if not impossible. Coronavirus variants may allow the virus to keep spreading, but the available vaccines can protect against many of them. The future may be an annual booster calibrated against the most prevalent versions of the virus, similar to flu shots.

Without herd immunity, keeping the virus in check is our best bet. That means we need to win more people over to the vaccine, for now and the long term.