Commentary

You shouldn’t need an incentive to do the right thing

Save yourself, and each other, by getting vaccinated

August 3, 2021 12:02 am

Garry Wakely, the program and marketing coordinator for the Bristol Public Library, searches downtown for residents to use up three remaining COVID-19 vaccines. (Kate Masters/Virginia Mercury)

COVID-19’s delta variant is wreaking havoc among the unvaccinated across the United States. New coronavirus cases are rising. People who should know better continue to raise doubts about the vaccines fighting the pandemic – one that’s killed more than 613,000 people nationwide.

Amid this plague, several states are offering cold, hard cash to entice people to roll up their sleeves and finally take the shot. The Washington Post reported about Maryland’s $2 million VaxCash lottery and Virginia’s refusal to start something similar, because officials in the commonwealth – correctly – doubt the effectiveness of such monetary giveaways.

The lotteries are infuriating. Why do states even need to cough up dough to get people vaccinated, something folks should do eagerly to protect themselves, loved ones and complete strangers? 

Next thing you know, states will pay residents for stopping at red lights, sending their taxes in on time, and parking between the lines at shopping center lots. 

It all reminds me of a skit by comedian Chris Rock, who was berating Black men for seeking kudos for doing the bare minimum of their responsibilities: “ ‘I take care of my kids.’ You’re supposed to! … ‘I ain’t never been to jail.’ What you want, a cookie?! You’re not supposed to go to jail!” 

I’ve deleted some expletives and slurs, but you get the essence. If you’ve seen Rock in concert or on video, you know the delivery.

Yes, the vaccination lotteries are well-intentioned. Getting shots will help protect people from the worst of the virus and save lives.

Resistance to the shots, in the face of horrifying deaths and a refusal to believe COVID-19 continues to decimate communities, prevents a return to normalcy. President Joe Biden even said last week that state and local governments should give $100 to people who get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Maybe the dangling of a prize – who doesn’t like to win something? – will be the tipping point convincing people to do the right thing. 

Or not. 

The Post cited one study of the first cash vaccination lottery in Ohio. Allan J. Walkey, professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, said daily vaccination rates slowed in Ohio and elsewhere after that state’s lottery was introduced in mid-May. 

“Further evidence supporting the effectiveness of lotteries as strategies for increasing vaccine uptake are needed prior to widespread and potentially costly adoption,” he wrote in a July 2 online article in the Journal of the American Medical Association

I asked Alena Yarmosky, spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam, whether the administration would change its position on lotteries for vaccines. 

“The governor has been hesitant to use cash incentives out of concerns that it may undermine the critical public health necessity of getting vaccinated,” she said by email Monday. “That being said, we are continuing to explore a variety of options to increase vaccinations among Virginians, particularly with the rise of the delta variant.”

The state already has spent hundreds of millions to fight the coronavirus, Yarmosky said, including through relief from evictions, small business support and vaccinations. 

The state’s dashboard on Monday showed more than 72 percent of adults have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. Rates vary dramatically, though, depending on where you live in the state. Northern Virginia is generally higher, and parts of Southwest Virginia are much lower. 

Scott Debb, associate professor in the psychology department at Norfolk State University, told me by email that cash rewards seem to work “at getting people through the door, but (are) not necessarily effective at educating people.” 

Lotteries can have benefits, too, when talking about overall costs. “From a community and public health perspective,” he added, “it seems like $100 out of pocket could be a great investment if you consider the cost of just one hospitalization due to COVID, or worse, the human cost of a death to a loved one and the impact on that family’s life.”

Overall, though, without educating people you can run into trouble long term, Debb said. They would still “need the carrot or the stick to get them through the door the next time around.”

Exactly. 

We’ve seen repeated news stories about COVID-19 patients who died not believing they were infected until it was too late. Or articles about people who survived but required lung transplants or other long-term treatment. 

The latest accounts include the story of Michael Freedy, a 39-year-old father from Las Vegas who wanted to wait and learn more about the shots. His fiancée recently gave several interviews urging folks to get the injections, after Freedy died Thursday from COVID-19. 

Among his texts to Jessica DuPreez during his fatal illness: “I should have gotten the damn vaccine.”

Giving people cash to get the shots could prevent such scenes, of course. But that money could instead be used on mobile vaccination sites, beefing up educational efforts, or paying a little extra to the medical personnel doing the grunt work across the commonwealth to end this scourge. 

It shouldn’t take the inducement of greenbacks to convince people to save themselves – and each other.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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