More Than Nudges Are Needed to End the Pandemic

Richard Thaler in the New York Times: “…In the case of Covid vaccinations, society cannot afford to wait decades. Although vaccines are readily available and free for everyone over age 12 in the United States, there are many holdouts. About 40 percent of the adult population has not been fully vaccinated, and about a third has not yet gotten even one dose. It is time to get serious.

Of course, information campaigns must continue to stress the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, but it is important to target the messages at the most hesitant groups. It would help if the F.D.A. gave the vaccines its full approval rather than the current emergency use designation. Full approval for the Pfizer drug may come as soon as Labor Day, but the process for the other vaccines is much further behind.

One way to increase vaccine takeup would be to offer monetary incentives. For example, President Biden has recently advocated paying people $100 to get their shots.

Although this policy is well intended, I believe it is a mistake for a state or a country to offer to pay individuals to get vaccinated. First of all, the amount might be taken to be an indicator of how much — or little — the government thinks getting a jab is worth. Surely the value to society of increased vaccinations is well beyond $100 per person.

Second, it seems increasingly likely that one or more booster shots may be necessary for some populations in the United States to deal with the Delta variant of the coronavirus — and, perhaps, other variants as well. If that happens, we don’t want some people to procrastinate, hoping to get paid. Government-sponsored booster shots are already beginning in Israel and are at various stages of planning in several European countries.

An alternative model is being offered by the National Football League, which has stopped short of requiring players to be vaccinated but is offering plenty of incentives. Unvaccinated players have to be tested every day, must be masked and at a distance from teammates on flights, and must stay in their room until game day. Vaccinated players who test positive and are asymptomatic can return to duty after two negative tests 24 hours apart. But unvaccinated players must undergo a 10-day isolation period.

These incentives followed a long effort to educate the players about the benefits to themselves, their families and fellow players. It is hard to say which aspect of the N.F.L. plan is doing the work, but over 90 percent of the league’s players have received at least one jab. The fact that a team could lose a game because an unvaccinated player can’t play creates a powerful group dynamic…(More)”.