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‘Time-off’ policy unlikely to be effective

The vaccines that were developed at lightning speed to combat COVID-19 are safe and highly effective, and millions of Americans have received them for all the right reasons – because they want to protect themselves, their families, friends and communities, and finally get life back to something like it was in February 2020.

As we all know by now, a substantial slice of American adults has been more reluctant to get vaccinated and have needed more prodding, whether it be with cash prizes or other incentives. But even then, they have not gotten off the sidelines. They will not get vaccinated. Period. And that’s even in the face of news reports of unvaccinated people gasping for air and expressing regret that they had not gotten their jabs before dying from COVID-19.

At this juncture, the time for carrots and cajoling seems to have passed. Measure that are more blunt are necessary. Vaccine mandates have been imposed by businesses, schools, governments and other institutions, and they have been found to be effective. The prospect of losing your livelihood or spot in a college can have a way of breaking down stubborn and senseless resistance.

That’s why it seemed odd when Gov. Tom Wolf announced at the beginning of November that he is offering five days of paid leave to more than 70,000 state employees under his ambit who get fully vaccinated by the end of the year. His administration is framing the offer as something that will “incentivize the vaccinations that protect commonwealth employees and the Pennsylvanians we serve. It’s one more way we can show our gratitude to employees who step up to help us protect our communities and bring this pandemic to an end.”

Wolf’s critics pounced, primarily saying it wastes taxpayer money. If, by some chance, the offer succeeded in getting every one of the employees resisting COVID vaccines to roll up their sleeves, it would probably be money well-spent, given the high dollar-and-cents costs that come with treating COVID-19 patients and the incalculable costs when lives are lost to the virus. But another reason to look at Wolf’s offer with skepticism is it might not do much to lift vaccination rates within that relatively small pool of people.

According to a study published in October by the National Bureau of Economic Research, offering people a cash reward for getting vaccinated did not increase the numbers of those receiving shots. Another study, this one published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined states that offered vaccine lotteries and those that did not, and found no appreciable difference in vaccination rates.

There was nothing wrong with trying any of these gambits in the spring and early summer. Officials have had to improvise in their response to this pandemic from the get-go, since it has been an unprecedented event, at least in recent times. As Franklin Roosevelt said as the Great Depression was raging, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” At this point, though, dangling goodies like money or days off or even donuts doesn’t seem to work when it comes to people who have decided to risk their own health and well-being in the name of “freedom” or “liberty” but is actually recklessness and selfishness.

No, much more stiff medicine is needed. As the National Bureau of Economic Research study says, “Reaching a goal of very high vaccination rates likely requires much stronger” actions, including employer rules. We continue to hope that employers will step up and require their employees to vaccinate.

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