Gov. Mike Dunleavy is now making public service announcements urging Alaskans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. That’s good. Dunleavy is doing what governors are supposed to do.
A recent public survey by the Department of Health and Social Services on Alaskans’ willingness to get the shots shows a substantial number unwilling so far, but open to learning more. Along with family, friends and the family doctor, the governor is cited as a trusted source of information.
We need to ramp up the pace of vaccinations. About half of Alaskans are now fully vaccinated and the number is higher among vulnerable groups like senior citizens and Alaska Natives in small, isolated rural communities.
There were focused efforts to get those groups vaccinated, which is obviously working. I think this also shows a sense of responsibility by seniors and Alaska Natives to protect others as well as themselves.
In rural villages, memories of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic and the deaths it caused are still strong. COVID-19 is not something rural Alaskans treat lightly.
Not so, unfortunately, among many other Alaskans, particularly the demographic I call the “invincible,” people who think they’ll never catch COVID-19, and if they do it’s just another flu.
Tell that to India.
We’re now seeing our own flareup of infections in Fairbanks, where the hospital is under stress. While this is nothing like the horror of India, there is a connection. Both were fueled by a complacency and relaxation of people’s diligence about taking precautions, like wearing face masks, abiding by physical distancing and being careful when socializing.
Fairbanks Memorial Hospital officials note that most of those becoming infected and seriously ill are middle-aged and younger white guys who thought they were invincible and are, of course, unvaccinated.
While the half of Alaskans who have the shots are getting some protection — and it’s not an absolute guarantee — there’s the other half still vulnerable to infection and capable of spreading the virus. They can become seriously ill and die.
In retail stores and other indoor settings there are too many unmasked people showing a disregard for the safety of others. This makes many of us uncomfortable in public spaces like restaurants.
If we knew most Alaskans were vaccinated, we’d be a lot more relaxed about going out and spending money. This is important in getting our tourism economy back on track.
While some of the unmasked may have had their shots, the point is we just don’t know. My sense is that those who disregard precautions like face masks also disregard the importance of being vaccinated.
There are legitimate reasons why people are vaccine-hesitant. Many worry about long-term effects with vaccines that were developed quickly during the pandemic emergency.
However, health experts tell us the short-term risks with COVID-19 are greater than long-term risks with the new vaccines. We need trusted sources like family, friends, family physicians, even our governor, to reassure people.
There will always be a resistant core group, however. The health and social services survey put the “never be vaccinated” group at about 25% of respondents.
Unless we can get these, we’ll never get “herd” immunity, the estimated 80% of a population being vaccinated scientists say is needed for the virus to die out. We did this with smallpox and polio, and we need to do it with COVID-19.
But what if the core group resists? What if people just dig their heels in, not wanting to have the government telling them what to do?
As tough as it is to say this, there comes a time.
People who resist taking public health measures and protections are endangering other people. I think it’s no different than someone waving a loaded gun around, which is something police take a dim view of.
So, here’s my solution: Since a lot of the young invincibles are also stout defenders of the Permanent Fund dividend, let’s add an inducement to becoming vaccinated.
Let’s require a proof of vaccination, to protect others, to PFD eligibility along with things like Alaska residency and lack of conviction of a crime.
I also argue that deliberately resisting vaccination of a dangerous disease drives up hospitalization and health care expense, a cost to society, in my mind.
I don’t see this as a penalty. Our PFDs are a benefit, not an entitlement. There’s nothing better that would rev up the vaccination rate.
I really want to get life back to get back to normal. If it takes putting another box to check on the PFD application, l’m all for it.
Tim Bradner is publisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest and Alaska Economic Report.
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