Interest in vaccinations rose after Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced that vaccinated people can remove their masks. Right after Walensky made her announcement on May 13, people began visiting vaccines.gov in earnest, searching for vaccination sites in their area.
“This shows incentives matter,” Dr. Jonathon Reiner, a professor of medicine and surgery at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences, told CNN. “People needed a carrot, and the carrot was the ability to drop the mask in most settings.”
John Brownstein, co-founder of VaccineFinder, the force behind vaccines.gov that was launched April 30, said that the increased number of people looking for information was “really amazing.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor in the Biden administration, told CNN that “the decision made by the CDC was not an incentive to get people vaccinated, but this could actually have the indirect effect of getting people incentivized to get vaccinated.”
Brownstein added that “a spike in usage on vaccines.gov right at that moment tells us that relaxing certain restrictions informed some people’s decisions to get vaccinated.”
Indeed, actual vaccinations did go up after May 13.
Experts told CNN that the rise in vaccinations was also due to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices opening the door for adolescents 12-15 years of age to get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. That announcement occurred on May 12 and allowed vaccine eligibility for 17 million more Americans.
Brownstein said that the government could learn from this experience as over half the U.S. population still needs to be vaccinated.
“There was a specific segment of the population for which this new mask guidance was meaningful, so as we’re trying to figure out which strategies work, this is one of them,” he said. “For others, maybe lottery tickets or other incentives work. But this one did work at least for some people.”
In Ohio, vaccine lotteries have been extremely successful. Every Wednesday through June 23, the state selects two people ages 18 and up from its database of vaccinated people and awards them $1 million. In a second group that includes 12- to 17-year olds, winners get a four-year, full-ride scholarship to an Ohio state college or university.
After the lottery was announced on May 12, the state had a whopping 47% increase in first shots among people 18 and older from May 14 to 19 compared to May 7 to 12. There was also a 94% increase among 16- and 17-year-olds. The Ohio data did not include younger adolescents they were not eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations during the earlier time slot.
Reiner said that using a carrot instead of a stick to encourage people — especially young people who feel they aren’t in danger from COVID-19 — is a good approach.
“I’ve tried talking to young people, getting them to focus on the fact that about 500 Americans a day are still dying from COVID-19,” he told CNN. “But no 18-year-old thinks they’re going to die of anything, so that really doesn’t resonate with them. But showing them they didn’t have to wear a mask—that was the key.”
Reiner added that in the past the CDC adopted a “gloom and doom” approach to get Americans vaccinated.
“But what this data shows is when you give the public some positive reinforcement, it really can bear fruit,” he told CNN.
According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 70% of Americans could be vaccinated by summer. The poll also found that 40% of parents said their adolescent children had already received one dose of the vaccine or would be getting it soon. Only about a quarter of parents with younger children expressed willingness to have their kids vaccinated if the shots become authorized for them.
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