Free stuff! Feds to use tried-and-true electoral strategy to overcome vaccine skepticism

If Americans like free stuff, they’ll love the new COVID-19 vaccines — or so the federal government hopes. Facing a combination of politicized processes for vaccine production and rising anti-vaccination sentiment in general, both Congress and the White House hope that they can get broad participation in immunization by removing the up-front costs involved in the shot.


That’s not the only hurdle to widespread immunization, but it may be the biggest. And in most cases, the cost hurdle is actually two hurdles:

— For most vaccines, people will need two doses, 21 to 28 days apart. Double-dose vaccines will have to come from the same drugmaker. There could be several vaccines from different manufacturers approved and available.

— Vaccination of the U.S. population won’t be a sprint but a marathon. Initially there may be a limited supply of vaccines available, and the focus will be on protecting health workers, other essential employees, and people in vulnerable groups. CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the National Academy of Medicine, and other organizations are working on priorities for the first phase. A second and third phase would expand vaccination to the entire country.

— The vaccine itself will be free of charge, and patients won’t be charged out of pocket for the administration of shots, thanks to billions of dollars in taxpayer funding approved by Congress and allocated by the Trump administration.

Okay, okay, so it’s not exactly free. There won’t be any out-of-pocket expense for them, which has actually been known for some time. Congress provided this funding in the earliest aid packages in anticipation of the need to quickly implement immunizations as broadly as possible, bearing in mind that poorer families living in dense urban neighborhoods have the highest risk.


So why the big push today on the freebie messaging? Two reasons: one, we’re getting closer to a vaccine, which makes this a good time to remind everyone that there won’t be any additional cost to getting a shot. And second, to dangle this as an enticement to overcome resistance to taking the vaccine, or at least to remove one potential objection to it.

It’s also another warning to states and cities to get their distribution systems ready:

— States and local communities will need to devise precise plans for receiving and locally distributing vaccines, some of which will require special handling such as refrigeration or freezing. States and cities have a month to submit plans.

The CDC set off another round of “is the White House rushing a vaccine for electoral purposes” questions by issuing a similar advisory earlier this month. The PR campaign today seems designed less for a particular target date, however, and more for a particular target audience. That audience is the skeptics, and the approach is to repackage almost everything that has already been decided and lay it out in a rational manner, so as to give an appearance of steadiness and order.

Will that work to increase adoption rates? It might help alleviate skepticism for those whose skepticism over this particular vaccine has rational roots, ie, fear of being early adopters, waiting for multiple vaccines to choose between options, etc. For those whose skepticism applies to vaccines in general? Lotsa luck, fellas.


What about the flu vaccine, though? Why not take the same approach to ending skepticism about that particular vaccine, by offering it for free? Mother Jones’ David Corn blasts Donald Trump for limiting free stuff to just COVID-19:

There is an amazingly simple and clever step that the US federal government could take to counter a possible COVID-19 surge this fall and winter: a national crash program for flu shots. So far, the Trump administration has not embarked on such a program.

Since the start of the pandemic, public health experts have voiced the fear that the coming weeks and months could yield a “twindemic,” as the coronavirus crisis overlaps with the spread of seasonal influenza. A June editorial in Science raised the prospect of a “convergence” that could become a “perfect storm.” Scientific American reports that epidemiologists worry the United States could “soon face two epidemics at the same time…and this combination could precipitate a crisis unlike any other.” …

But as Trump has refused to embraced the basic steps necessary to contain the pandemic, he has also not yet demonstrated an interest in such an elementary and effective public health project. Could that be because of his antivax past? Whatever the cause, he is letting an opportunity slip by. As the COVID-19 death count approaches 200,000, Trump—and the nation—is running out of time to implement a damn easy way to assist an embattled health care system and to reduce suffering and death.


There’s also an amazingly simple answer to this criticism: it takes Congress to do what Corn demands here. The executive branch can’t appropriate billions of dollars on its own, as anyone with a reasonable grasp of civics understands. The reason why there will be free COVID-19 immunizations this year is because Congress appropriated the money to buy them in the emergency aid packages. If Corn and MJ wants the federal government to do the same with the flu, they should be criticizing Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, or at least include them in the criticism. Trump didn’t oppose this part of the aid package when it first came up, and it seems doubtful that he’d bother to oppose it if Congress decided to buy the flu shots in the next aid package either.

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