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Editorial: Incentives needed to up vaccinations

While slightly more than half of Hawaii’s residents are now fully vaccinated, health authorities maintain that we need to reach a threshold of about 80% to get control of COVID-19. That level of shielding is our ticket to further easing of coronavirus-related restrictions and advancing economic recovery.

In mid-December, when the first trays of vaccine were stirring hopes for 2021 to bring restoration of pre-pandemic life, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said it looked possible that Hawaii could touch the 70% mark by the Fourth of July — with smooth dose distribution and growing public confidence in the emergency-use vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.

But now, reaching that mark hinges on a robust push this month to redouble public-information campaign efforts that address vaccine hesitancy issues, step up convenience in communities beset by access hurdles, and roll out public- and private-sector incentives. Those could range from gift cards for local dining and groceries to sweepstakes for staycations, cash prizes and higher education tuition.

For now, incentive carrots seem to hold the greatest potential for nudging forward vaccination counts, since “the stick” strategies are contingent on vaccines securing full approval from the FDA.

In addition to raising confidence in some vaccine-hesitant factions, full approval could also make it easier for schools, employers and government agencies to essentially mandate vaccination. The University of Hawaii is rightly planning to limit large in-person groups to vaccinated participants, effective when a vaccine secures full approval.

Mandatory inoculation — with medical and religious exemption allotted — could serve as the strongest tool to stopping the spread of infection. In the meantime, recent federal guidance updates are sensibly clearing the way for more incentives, such as Walmart offering workers a $75 bonus to get the shots.

On Friday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has said businesses can require eligible employees to get vaccinated, signed off on incentives — as long as the carrots are not “coercive.”

Also, the U.S. Treasury Department has updated its guidance for how states and local governments can spend pandemic relief aid — allowing lotteries, cash payments or other incentives that are “reasonably expected” to increase vaccinations and keep costs “reasonably proportional” to expected public health benefit.

The move was prompted, in part, by a statewide drawing in Ohio in which vaccinated adults can score a $1 million prize; the younger set is eligible for full-ride college scholarships. With those purses dangled, the shots-in-arms rate among residents increased dramatically.

Other states have announced similar programs. Hawaii should swiftly follow suit, as laws allow.

In business circles, this week CVS Health launched a sweepstakes that provides vaccine-compliant customers with an opportunity to win scores of prizes. Now is the time for Hawaii’s visitor industry, restaurant groups and others to also be offering locally based incentives.

In regard to the reach of science-based public information — especially in communities disproportionately impacted by the virus — it’s encouraging to see efforts such as the FilCom CARES campaign, which got underway over the weekend with a heavy presence in Filipino-focused media across radio and TV statewide.

And in regard to prioritizing convenience, to Hawaii’s credit, shots are available at numerous locations. The state, working with health-care partners, should further expand community-based walk-in, pop-up and mobile-unit options. Employers should actively encourage workers to get inoculated. It will take a wide range of vaccine incentives, accessibility and safety messaging to quash hesitancy — and achieve herd immunity for collective public health.

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