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Should People Be Compensated For Getting A COVID-19 Vaccine?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We know there are some Americans who are hesitant to get vaccinated. So there's this idea out there to give them money to encourage them, and it's supported by a number of economists and politicians - essentially, a government cash-for-shots program. But there are those who do say it could backfire. NPR's Uri Berliner has more.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Robert Litan worries that appeals from politicians and celebrities that implore people to get vaccinated, they won't be enough, so cash payouts should be a Plan B. Litan, an economist affiliated with the Brookings Institution, says that could be what it takes to reach herd immunity.

ROBERT LITAN: Because if we don't get to that, we're not going to get our lives back.

BERLINER: He's proposing that the federal government compensate everyone who gets vaccinated - a thousand dollars - $200 for getting both shots, and $800 after the country reaches herd immunity.

LITAN: We just have a lot of people in this country who either don't trust the government or they don't trust vaccines or whatever. I view the payment for a vaccine as the price we pay for having a divided country.

BERLINER: Litan and his wife are both 70, and they were brainstorming about how they'd ever get out of the house again. Their idea - it's straight out of economics 101. People respond to incentives, and incentives can be used not just for the sake of individuals but for the benefit of society as a whole, like insurance discounts for safe driving or cash payouts for employees who quit smoking. This one would be pricey.

LITAN: So at a thousand dollars a person, round numbers, we're talking somewhere between $250 and $350 billion.

BERLINER: That's billions with a B. But Litan says it would be a drop in the bucket compared to the economic harm if the pandemic persists. After Litan wrote about paying people to get vaccinated, the idea got backing from former Democratic presidential candidates John Delaney and Andrew Yang and from the prominent economist Greg Mankiw. But that's about it. There is no groundswell, no bill in Congress.

LITAN: It may not be ready for prime time until we actually see the takeup rate.

BERLINER: The takeup rate for vaccinations. Now, if government pay-ups (ph) speed up the takeup rate and help us overcome the pandemic, it would be money well spent. But some say the idea overlooks a basic factor - fear.

CYNTHIA CRYDER: Payment may indeed encourage some people to get the vaccine.

BERLINER: Cynthia Cryder teaches marketing at Washington University's Olin Business School.

CRYDER: But it may also deter some people from getting the vaccine because payment signals that the vaccine is risky.

BERLINER: The worry is that some people will think, the government wouldn't pay me to take these shots unless there's something dodgy about the vaccine, even though there's no evidence of that. There's a lot at stake in overcoming suspicions about the vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci says vaccination levels should reach between 70% and 90% to fully protect the population. But more than 30% of people say they won't or probably won't take the shots. Right now the math doesn't work. Maybe confidence will grow as more shots are given. But if not, months from now we could be hearing a lot more about Litan's Plan B - paying people to get vaccinated.

Uri Berliner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.