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Editorial: NC ups the ante on vaccine incentives

What more can they do?

Health care professionals and politicians have tried communicating the seriousness of COVID-19 through personal stories and statistics.

No less than a medical miracle, they’ve offered effective COVID-19 vaccines  at no cost to the general public.

They’ve made vaccines available at a wide variety of locations — from small town pharmacies to Walmart and Food Lion. Regardless of where you’re driving, chances are you’ll go by a place that offers vaccines the next time you’re in a car.

Next came the incentives. First, it was free donuts, beer, rides to get the shot, child care and discounts on purchases. Then came direct cash incentives, with locations in Rowan County offering $25 cash cards for people who got vaccinated and their drivers.

Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper upped the ante about as high as possible, creating a lottery for people who get the shot. People 18 and older who get vaccinated moving forward are entered twice to win $1 million; those previously vaccinated are entered once. People 12-17 will win a $125,000 scholarship in North Carolina’s National College Savings Plan. There will be four drawings for the $1 million prize as well as the scholarships.

The more recent prizes haven’t had time to gin up new interest, but the previous incentives have only gotten North Carolina to 44% vaccinated — below the national average and far short of herd immunity.

Rowan County is even worse than that — about 34% of people with at least one dose. People continue to die from COVID-19 because 34% is not enough to stop the spread of the virus. It’s true even if you also count people who have already tested positive.

Mostly, those 65 and older have been willing to get vaccinated. Statistics from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services show 81% of North Carolinians older than 65 have gotten the shot. As with most statistics, it’s worse than that in Rowan — around 70%.

Simply put, the incentives haven’t worked so far here or across the state. North Carolina and Rowan County need the general public’s vaccination rate to resemble that of those 65 and older.

It’s worth pausing to recognize there are still people who haven’t made time to get vaccinated and are not opposed to doing so. Maybe they cannot take time away from work even if free childcare is provided. Maybe they are so consumed with keeping their proverbial head above water that getting vaccinated for COVID-19 falls many steps below top priorities. There are procrastinators out there, too. Folks who haven’t yet made the time and are not opposed to the idea will need vaccination options that are as easy as flipping a switch in addition to incentives.

Will the new incentives work for people who are firmly opposed or hesitant? It all depends on how success gets defined.

North Carolina is all but certain to fall short of herd immunity, but it might be able to raise public vaccination rates above 60%.

Progress will need to come among those who are hesitant but open-minded because the increased polarization of society means people are much less likely to change their opinion about hot-button issues. Conspiracy theories about vaccines run rampant online and go mostly unchecked. The further someone is into an echo chamber of conspiracies, the less likely they are to emerge.

Now offering a lottery, North Carolina may have reached its limit for vaccine incentives that involve money, but there may be other ways to encourage the public to get their shot.

If you have a good idea, speak up.

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