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Editorial: Work to counter vaccine hesitancy

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Two years ago, vaccine hesitancy — along with other global threats, from Ebola to climate change — appeared on the World Health Organization’s list of the top 10 issues that demand urgent attention.

In 2019, due largely to an uptick in reluctance or refusal to vaccinate, the United States saw a resurgence of measles, with cases spread across 30 states. The U.S. had announced the eradication of the disease in 2000.

Among the key reasons cited for the resurgence was underlying hesitancy: lack of confidence in vaccination due in part to misinformation relayed on some media platforms; inconvenience; and complacency.

Today, as the public health push continues to vaccine Hawaii against COVID-19, that same three-pronged pushback is slowing progress. While slightly more than 45% of residents are fully vaccinated, we need to reach a threshold of about 80% to get control of COVID. That level of shielding is our ticket to further easing of coronavirus-related restrictions and advancing economic recovery.

Clearly, hesitancy is a high-risk matter, as it clears the way for the potentially deadly virus to spread. That’s exactly what happened during a 10-week training program for a group of 40 recruits for state correctional officer jobs. After all but four opted against getting the vaccine, half of the trainees tested positive for the virus. One was hospitalized. Meanwhile, those who received the vaccine tested negative.

Also alarming — and heartbreaking — is an apparent large cluster tied to a church in Kaimuki that sent a number of people to the hospital, including a 71-year-old woman who died on Sunday. That congregant’s daughter told Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Sophie Cocke that her mother had been fed misinformation about vaccine dangers and she chose not to get the shot.

While top health officials and major scientific studies have confirmed the safety and effectiveness of available COVID-19 vaccines, exasperating falsehoods are in persistent circulation. In the case of “United … Hawaii,” church members shared online videos and websites that claim shots can cause massive bruising and sterilization in women.

For many, a twinge of fear related to the newness of the vaccine and its unknown future outcomes is unavoidable. Outweighing those concerns is infection threat. Even so, a month after every adult in the U.S. became eligible for the vaccine, the overall pace of inoculation in many states, Hawaii included, is static or decelerating.

In response, it appears that more swaying tactics are in order. To remedy messaging confusion, the still-hesitant owe it to themselves and the rest of us to promptly consult with their doctors or other health-care professionals about vaccination worries.

In regard to convenience, to Hawaii’s credit, shots are available at numerous locations. However, the state should consider further expanding walk-in options. Also, employers should actively encourage their workers to get vaccinated, and allow ample time off to get shots.

In addition, Hawaii should consider adopting a carrot-stick strategy. One stick could align the rising rate for full vaccination with reopening plans, such as Honolulu’s tiered framework. Another could follow the University of Hawaii’s lead by limiting large in-person groups to vaccinated participants — effective when a vaccine secures full federal Food and Drug Administration approval.

The carrot could be an incentive such as a a gift card for local dining or other purchases. Some states are delivering more vaccinations this way — from free glasses of wine at a New Jersey winery to a statewide drawing in Ohio in which five vaccinated adults are slated to receive a $1 million prize.

Be it carrot or stick, the state should consider every available option to get more shots in arms. Our physical, mental and economic health depend on it.

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