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NWA EDITORIAL: The sure thing

State dangles incentives for vaccinations by NWA Democrat-Gazette | May 30, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

As tragic as covid-19 has been, historians remind us the spread of an influenza strain misnamed the Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919 remains the most severe pandemic in the more recent history of humankind.

The estimates are covid-19 has killed 3.51 million people around the world, with more than 169 million people having fallen ill so far. Back a little more than a hundred years ago, the flu virus was spreading around the world with the assistance of troop movements and dislocated people resulting from World War I. By the time that pandemic was over, it was estimated the number of deaths worldwide totaled 50 million people, with 10 times that number becoming infected with the virus.

In 1918, there were no flu vaccines. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the lack of antibiotics to treat secondary infections increased the flu's deadly power. Efforts to control it were limited to isolation, personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limitations on public gatherings. And, of course, there were masks.

"The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker," read a Red Cross public service announcement in the October 1918 San Francisco Chronicle, using wartime terminology for someone unwilling to pitch in to help in the nation's fight.

A promotional poster circa 1918 in Oregon put it this way: "We appeal to your civic patriotism to co-operate with us in our effort to stamp out the Spanish Influenza or 'Flu' Plague in Portland by wearing a mask."

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In 2021 Arkansas, where the battle against the covid-19 virus continues and where it now benefits from the existence of effective vaccines available to everyone, things are a little different.

"Get a shot and we'll give you a lottery ticket," is the public service announcement these days.

Until last week, the effort to get Arkansans vaccinated has been based on gentle cajoling from public health officials and Gov. Asa Hutchinson. There are no vaccination mandates, nor should there be. But people ought to be vaccinated because it's the smart way to protect themselves and others. That, however, doesn't appear to be convincing enough.

According to last Thursday's numbers from the CDC, about 1,179,100 Arkansans, representing about 39.1 percent of the state's population, had received at least one vaccine dose. The number counted as fully vaccinated is 925,698, or about 30.7 percent of the population.

The numbers show a serious need for more Arkansans to step up to receive either the two-shot Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-shot Johnson and Johnson injection.

"Civic patriotism," though, doesn't sell like it might have a hundred years ago. But a chance at a $1 million jackpot? The governor's theory is just a possibility of winning may be enough to motivate some Arkansans to accept a vaccine. He also offered, for those uninterested in the lottery, gift certificates from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission that can be used for, say, paying for a fishing or hunting license, among other things.

It is a natural progression. The folks who have gotten vaccinated so far are the ones self-motivated by the benefits of the vaccines and a drive to get their lives out from under the burdens of pandemic restrictions. Now, it's time for public health officials to do whatever they can to reach those less motivated but not vehemently opposed to the power of vaccines to lift Arkansas out of the emergency conditions we've all lived through for the last year-plus.

The need to entice people apparently is real. On Friday, this newspaper reported the pace of vaccinations in the state continued trending downward, with the average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period dropping below 8,000 for the first time since Feb. 23.

Arkansas State Parks are also offering at certain vaccination events the possibility of winning free lodging. According to Hutchinson, the lottery, Game and Fish and state parks incentives may not be the last ones.

"I think everyday about what more we can do to encourage and incentivize vaccines, but it is really up to each individual. Let's keep encouraging each other," Hutchinson said on Twitter Thursday.

He couldn't be more right. This is a personal responsibility issue. But it cannot be treated as only that because it's a public health matter, too. One person's decision affects others when it comes to vaccinations.

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It is easy, perhaps, to think the worst of the pandemic is over as we see crowds of unmasked people filling ballparks for Arkansas Razorback baseball and softball games and other events. But public health officials recognize the warmer weather and the move of activities to outdoor settings naturally help to reduce the transmission of communicable diseases. They also know that come the fall, if people haven't taken measures like the vaccines to protect themselves, an aggressive virus can come back strong among those who have chosen to leave themselves vulnerable.

Covid-19, and in particular its variants, are aggressive. Given the right conditions, they will thrive. And thriving for them means finding new people to infect. It's just what they do.

Maybe it's a little ridiculous that it requires gimmicks to convince people to do what is in the best interests of themselves, their loved ones and their community. But it's not really shocking, is it? Arkansas is unfortunately near the bottom, with Alabama and Mississippi, in terms of its vaccination rates. We've been here before.

State and local officials have to keep up the effort to convince those who can be convinced to become vaccinated, for everyone's benefit.

The dedicated anti-vaxxers will not be moved. Neither lotteries or hunting licenses or free lodging are going to influence a "true believer" in anti-vaccination messages, any more than they'll be motivated by the offer of complimentary fluoride in their water or a lifetime supply of tin foil. Science won't change some people's mind, so it's probably too much to think a lottery ticket will.

If offering such things can get Arkansas from 30 percent to 40 or 50 percent, that's lives saved and illnesses avoided.

And for once, Arkansas' lottery will be associated with something that's at least close to a sure thing.

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What’s the point?

If lottery chances and free hunting licences is what it takes to get people vaccinated, so be it.

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