Getting West Virginians vaccinated against COVID-19 has turned into a real struggle. So much so that Gov. Jim Justice and his public health team are trying to apply some creative methods to incentivize residents between the ages of 16 and 35 to get the shot. Some are good, and seem like they at least have a chance at working. Others, not so much.
Just more than 44% of the state population eligible to receive the vaccine — those ages 16 and up — have received at least one dose, while 36.3% have been fully vaccinated, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two doses a few weeks apart for full efficacy, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one shot.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused for two weeks in West Virginia, and throughout the United States, as health officials investigated a small number of blood clots (less than 20 cases out of nearly 7 million who received the vaccine) to determine if they were a side effect. Justice announced Monday that its use has resumed.
Overall, the statewide vaccination rate, once the best in the nation, is now near the bottom in the country. The good news is that 79.3% of West Virginians 65 and older, those most at risk for contracting and dying from the original strain of the virus, have received at least one dose of the vaccine. And the majority — more than 70% — are fully vaccinated.
However, when factoring in those 16 and older against the 1.4 million West Virginia residents eligible for the vaccine, only 53% have received a first dose and 44% have been fully vaccinated. The problem remains that West Virginians between the ages of 16 and 35 aren’t getting vaccinated at a high rate, and they’re the ones who are more vulnerable to the new variants of COVID-19 that are cropping up here and across the country.
Some of Justice’s proposals are ideal for addressing the problem. Organizing vaccination clinics at state parks and other gathering places makes it more convenient and removes excuses. There also could be some positive peer pressure involved. If someone who is hesitant is at a state park with friends, and one or two go ahead and get the vaccine, it could be a deciding factor for that person.
Justice’s plan to incentivize 16- to 35-year-olds to get the vaccine by offering a $100 U.S. savings bond and, now, a commemorative silver dollar, seems less likely to succeed. First of all, it’s not even clear if it’s legal, although Justice insists it's something he can and will do. Secondly, it’s hard to imagine a savings bond that will be worth $100 several years from now and a silver dollar getting anyone who didn’t grow up sometime between 1945 and 1986 excited. Amazon gift cards? Maybe. The whole thing is gimmicky, and the gimmick being offered is archaic.
Justice, and the state, would be better served to take the money they’re planning to spend on this incentive (and more) and sink it into a well-organized media campaign that blankets TV, laptop and smartphone screens, along with newspapers, radio airwaves and billboards. They need to saturate the market and get everyone’s attention, no matter the age group.
The only real format for encouraging people to get the vaccine so far has been Justice pleading three times a week during his COVID-19 briefings. It’s unclear just how many people those online-only briefings are reaching these days. Judging by the stagnating vaccination numbers, Justice’s pleas have either found just about everyone they’re going to find or West Virginians have started to tune him out.
His message is correct. If people don’t get vaccinated, more West Virginians will become sick and more will die. It also will take longer to get back to a life without masks and social distancing.
Whether people are simply tired of the governor or he’s preaching to a void, the message needs to shift to a broader audience, and it needs to come from people who specialize in communication and persuasion.