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It’s not working. Our nation’s approach to immunizing Americans against COVID-19 did not reach the goal of 70% vaccinated by July 4th. Only about 53% are fully immunized. Providing free easily available vaccinations against a disease that killed over 600,000 Americans and almost 3,000 West Virginians was not adequate to motivate enough people to take the shot to reach herd immunity. Meanwhile, many countries around the globe look at America with envy and exasperation for our unused vaccine surpluses and their nations’ deficits.

For our state and nation’s health, it is time to change the current approach to vaccinations. Reasoning, pleading and a shot at million dollars aren’t working. Gov. Jim Justice has been a realistic and strong supporter of vaccinations. Wisely, he doesn’t see this as a political issue but as a health crisis.

The current plan reminds me of asking a recalcitrant teenager to take out the trash. Half the teenagers respond to helpfulness and appreciation. The other half only follow through with the request when they realize that noncompliance results in lost privileges or more discomfort.

One of my favorite mottos when I had a psychology practice was, “No one changes until they are really uncomfortable.” Most people who refuse to become immunized aren’t uncomfortable. The thought of becoming ill, dying or spreading that fate to others doesn’t affect them. While it’s probably not legal, it’s tempting to want to let those who refuse vaccinations and later need medical care/hospitalization for COVID-19 to pay a surcharge for their medical care. Better yet, offer health care insurance discounts to vaccinated individuals as is done for nonsmokers.

Vehicle seat belt usage also provides interesting motivation to change behavior. Most states adopted seat belt laws in the mid to late 1980s when it was shown they saved lives. West Virginia followed in 1993. It wasn’t popular initially, but by 2018 compliance was about 85% after publicity and police ticketing campaigns.

Recent statistics show that overall, only 37% of West Virginians are fully immunized; 44% have had one dose. Among West Virginians over the age of 65, 69% are fully immunized and 76% have had one dose. Wisdom does come with age! Vermont, a rural state with many similarities to West Virginia, has over 70% of its population immunized and two weeks without any COVID deaths.

From the casual eye, it looks as though COVID-19 is gone from West Virginia. Downtown Huntington was thriving on the July 2 evening; it was wonderful. Yet on that date, 49 new cases, 95 hospitalizations and two deaths from COVID-19 were reported in West Virginia. Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar, noted that the new delta variant, just starting to come into West Virginia, is more contagious and also more serious for those under age 30.

Adults who really wanted the vaccine did everything in their power to find a shot this winter. More cautious folks waited a few months and then took their jab by late spring. A different approach is needed for those still unvaccinated. They are likely to remain that way unless something makes them very uncomfortable.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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