Talking Points

3 smart ideas for vaccinating the skeptics

With new cases of COVID-19 rising again nationally (and surging quite seriously in certain regions of the country), American pundits have turned their attention to solving the riddle of how to persuade vaccine skeptics to take the plunge, get the shot, and protect themselves and those around them against the highly contagious Delta variant of the disease.

Three ideas stand out as especially smart.

Approve the vaccines. If it sounds strange to say that the FDA should approve the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for use when millions of Americans have already received the shots, that's because what the FDA has been doing makes little sense. As The Week's own Noah Millman has argued, followed by Matthew Yglesias on Substack, nothing would do more to persuade skeptics that the vaccines are safe, and to encourage vaccine mandates in a range of public institutions (including the military and schools), than the FDA issuing final approval for their use. (On Monday, a federal judge upheld Indiana University's vaccine mandate, so FDA approval isn't a necessary condition of imposing and enforcing such mandates. But such approval would likely make them far more widespread.) Yes, this would mean fast-tracking the decision, but the agency already issued emergency-use approval of the vaccines in record time. That was many millions of shots ago. The vaccines work. Why not get this done now?

Stop fighting the culture war. National Review's Michael Brendan Dougherty suggests that the most effective thing people promoting the vaccines could do is something negative — stop disrespecting the vaccine-hesitant by calling them idiots or moral defectives. Instead, those pushing the vaccines should demonstrate some empathy and understanding toward those who have reacted to well over a year of shifting "expert" counsel about how to respond to the pandemic by deciding to sit on the sidelines for a while, patiently waiting to see what happens to those who leapt to the front of the vaccination line. That soft touch might just get them to soften their own resistance. 

Cough up the cash. Building on Dougherty's arguments, The New York Times' Ross Douthat proposes that governments would have more luck persuading people to get vaccinated if they combined rhetorical honey with a financial incentive: $100 for getting the first of two shots followed by $1,000 for showing up for the second. For "a rounding error in the Biden infrastructure plan," such a program could make a huge difference in motivating people to come off the vaccination fence, especially if it were presented as "a limited-time offer, good only through October." Free money? Now that just might work.