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Lottery payout for vaccine worth exploring

Without question, the health of Oregon — its people, economy and future — depends on getting a critical mass of Oregonians vaccinated against COVID-19 as quickly as possible. If we want any hope of reopening businesses and returning to some semblance of normal, Oregonians across the state must have confidence that it’s safe to return to work, school and social gatherings.

But how to achieve “herd immunity” — the level at which enough of the population is vaccinated to deter its spread — is a different question altogether. While about 57% of Oregonians 16 years and older have received at least one shot, demand for vaccinations has dropped in recent weeks as hesitant or defiant Oregonians refrain from getting immunized.

Which is why it makes perfect sense for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to look at offering a lottery jackpot as a way to encourage people to get vaccinated. Similar to Ohio, where the governor announced the state would issue five weekly drawings of $1 million open to adults who have received at least one shot, Oregon is exploring a similar incentive with the Oregon Lottery, the governor’s spokesman, Charles Boyle, told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board. While it would not likely match the scale of Ohio’s program, Boyle said, the state is looking at “significant” cash prizes including of up to $1 million. Oregon is also examining college savings or college tuition incentives for younger Oregonians, he said, similar to the five drawings for full four-year scholarships that Ohio is offering to those under 18.

It remains to be seen whether such a program could change the calculus for those who have abstained so far, but the idea is worth exploring. As the debate over vaccines has devolved into politics, misinformation and social media sanctimony, an attention-grabbing move such as this could spur people to take a second look at the vaccine. Devoting a tiny fraction of the federal coronavirus dollars sent to Oregon to incentives such as this and other efforts would be well worth the investment if they can help get us to the 70% to 80% immunization range that some experts believe will be necessary for herd immunity to COVID-19 and its variants.

Certainly, there are many reasons the pace of vaccination has slowed in Oregon — a lack of access, historical mistrust and personal health circumstances that make getting the vaccine riskier for some than for the general population. State and local authorities are funding mobile vaccine units and working with local trusted organizations, particularly those serving communities of color, to help address those barriers.

But the state must also address deep suspicion in many rural counties, where vaccination rates lag. The state’s decision early this year to redirect vaccines from some rural counties to urban areas as vaccinations among Portland’s highest-priority residents fell behind only reinforced years-old resentment of the city’s dominance in setting statewide policy and funding decisions.

Brown’s decision to offer grants to counties to run their own incentives program — a sign of trusting local authorities to meet local needs — is a step in the right direction.

But incentives won’t necessarily work on their own, Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University, told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board. Health officials must look to alternative communication and messaging strategies to reach those who simply don’t trust the government or mainstream media.

For example, some residents may be more inclined to listen to religious leaders than Salem politicians, he noted, suggesting outreach to local churches for hosting a vaccine clinic might be more effective. Emphasizing the connection of vaccines to the health of the economy can also persuade holdouts to reconsider. And the state can work with businesses and sports venues to reinforce the message, either by providing their own incentives or even denying entry without proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test, he noted.

But no strategies should be off the table in this push to get people vaccinated as soon as possible. While government bears most of the responsibility, individuals can help. Check on your elderly neighbors. Help hesitant people find resources to answer their questions. Offer help with appointments or rides to vaccination sites. Since the pandemic began, we’ve all been in this together. That is just as true now as it was in spring 2020.