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It’s one thing to talk about vaccinating the majority of people living in the United States to stop the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s another thing to do it — and pay for it.

Epidemiologists tell us we need 75% or more of Americans to be immune to Covid-19 to create herd immunity. Much of that immunity will come from vaccinations. Recent polls show only about 60% of Americans are willing to take the vaccine. Visualize a line of people willing to take the shots: As of now, it’s much too short.

A vaccine program will also be expensive, even though recipients are told they will get vaccinated for free. One thing I’ve learned in life is that “free” is rarely a good price for anything. Especially something of great value, like protection from a deadly disease.

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Leveraging the difference between price and value with creative approaches can nudge more Americans to get vaccinated and simultaneously fund the vaccination program. I propose a citizen-led program with three basic objectives:

  • Entice a broad array of social influencers to help drive vaccination rates
  • Raise $50 billion to subsidize vaccinations
  • Provide various businesses with certainty

Influencers and paying to be vaccinated

The first two parts of the proposal are linked: Have the wealthiest and most influential Americans donate large sums of money to get to the front of the vaccine line, and use that money to fund the broader effort to vaccinate people against Covid-19. While some may donate because it is the right thing to do, I’d expect a substantial portion of the money raised to come from businesses that want greater certainty for themselves in a very uncertain world.

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Donations would come from five tiers. For each tier, the mechanism is the same. People (or businesses on behalf of their people), donate money to get to the front of the Covid-19 vaccine line. There are limited available slots and getting the vaccine must be publicly documented so others can be motivated by these influential figures.

In the first tier, 100 of the wealthiest Americans each donate $100 million to be first in line for a vaccine, getting it within the first weeks of availability. This raises $10 billion.

In the second tier, 1,000 people each donate $10 million to get vaccinated within the first month. This raises another $10 billion.

You can see where this is going: The third tier requires a $1 million contribution for up to 10,000 people. The fourth, $100,000 for up to 100,000 people. The fifth and final tier requires a $25,000 donation from up to 400,000 people. Everyone participating in the program is vaccinated within the first two months of vaccine availability. The bigger the donation, the further toward the front one goes.

All told, this raises $50 billion for the cause by vaccinating just 511,000 people.

What would this $50 billion be used for, since the federal government has said it (thanks, taxpayers) is paying for the vaccines? A lot. I don’t pretend to know the optimal ways to spend this money, but I do know there are plenty of places it can help.

At the highest level, it can cover some of the government’s vaccination costs and save taxpayers some debt. But I think it will be more useful if it aids states and localities in filling voids in their vaccine distribution processes, essentially creating flexibility where it is needed. That can mean everything from better serving those in remote locations to providing information in languages other than English. It can mean funding for vaccine programs where standard channels struggle, such as for people who are homeless or undocumented. Perhaps it means paying for child care so health care workers can put in overtime, allowing people to get vaccinated more hours of the day. And for those who’ll have a tough time going to a clinic, it can pay for programs to bring the vaccine to people’s homes.

In short, it can help get past the multitude of barriers to vaccine access, big and small, that exist in the U.S.

Is this morally acceptable?

Paying to get to the front of the line might seem obscene. But with 331 million people in the United States, this donor group is just 0.17% of the population. If the program seems too aggressive, removing the lowest tier still raises $40 billion with 111,100 vaccinations, which I estimate is less than one hour’s worth of anticipated peak vaccine capacity.

This whole idea fails if it interferes with getting vaccines into the arms of the people who need it most. The program is designed to ensure a maximum delay of no more than 24 hours for anyone, anywhere, at any point. The maximum average delay is under eight hours. Having a comparatively small numbers of donors makes this work.

A lot of vaccinations can be funded with $50 billion. At about $150 per U.S. resident, the money raised from the 0.17% can cover the cost of most — perhaps all — vaccinations for Americans.

Nudging others to get vaccinated

Involving influencers is an essential part of this program, much as the federal government tapped Elvis Presley to promote the stalled 1956 polio vaccination program. As these influencers share their vaccinations on traditional and social media, virtually everyone unsure about getting a Covid-19 vaccine will see someone they admire getting it. The line for people wanting a Covid-19 vaccine will grow.

Success depends on a good sales pitch. This isn’t the logic-driven scholarly pitch that you can find on a daily basis. Instead, it is a pitch that reaches the reluctant and recalcitrant. In marketing parlance, influencers “reach people where they are.”

Nothing reinforces the idea that getting a vaccine is a good idea like someone paying big money to move up in line. Seeing people motivated to get to the front of the line creates a perception of value, which is always a useful part of a sales pitch — a phenomenon we’ve seen ranging from “Hamilton” tickets to new PlayStations.

Few things offer more actual value than a vaccine against a rampaging deadly disease. But for too many people, the perception of value is missing here. Having influencers from most every segment of society get vaccinated alters this perception and changes the game for the U.S.

Adding certainty for businesses

How might this work? I’ll offer sports as an example.

U.S. professional sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, National Women’s Soccer League, and MLB currently have little or no certainty around their business. The same is true for the 2020 Olympics, to be held in Tokyo in the summer of 2021. The availability of vaccines changes that.

Vaccines mean no canceled games and more time to practice. They mean the ability to travel without expensive and frustrating bubbles. A team’s performance will no longer turn on Covid-19, as happened when the Denver Broncos football team was unable to field an experienced quarterback against the New Orleans Saints and lost 31 to 3.

There are about 5,000 athletes in these team sports, with another 5,000 first-line staff members. Teams could pay $100,000 per person for early access to vaccines, generating $1 billion for vaccination efforts. The Tokyo Olympics has no shortage of wealthy stakeholders: team sponsors, the media, and others have a vested interest in making the games work.

Some leagues might even decide it’s worthwhile to fund lower-level operations. For example, the NHL might choose to fund the American Hockey League in the lowest tier, or MLB might fund its farm teams.

Athletes are likely to be last on the official list of vaccine recipients as they constitute one of the lowest-profile risk groups: very healthy people under age 40. But in return for the sort of money that can vaccinate millions of people, these organizations get business certainty while their employees get paycheck certainty.

Equally important, athletes are influencers. Or put another way, 83% of Americans know who Tom Brady is.

A nonpolitical solution

My proposal is neither conservative or liberal — or it can be portrayed as both.

For conservatives, it is a free-market solution: People and businesses are making a choice on how they use their money. Liberals can view it as a wealth tax: People who can afford it pay for early access to a vaccine and, in doing so, pay for others to get vaccinated.

I believe that the concept is inherently nonpolitical. Instead it is a solutions-oriented approach to concerns that have been raised about U.S. vaccination programs. Are wealthy individuals finding ways to move forward in the vaccine line without offering up anything for the rest of society? Princeton sociology professor Shamus Khan says it is happening now and he is concerned this will grow dramatically.

We need solutions.

Pricing a vaccine

By establishing one price for the vaccine — free — we artificially constrain ourselves to that price and exclude other pricing models able to deliver better results for society.

One other program idea I’m aware of assigns a cost to the vaccine. Former Congressman John Delaney offered this solution: pay each American $1,500 to get a Covid-19 vaccine.

His intriguing idea has two notable deficiencies compared to my plan. One is that it costs an enormous amount of money — nearly $400 billion to vaccinate enough people for herd immunity — compared to collecting money for vaccination programs. The second is that it does nothing to bring influencers into the equation, but assumes that money is a sufficient influencer on its own. Delaney offers what some will see as a bribe, bound to increase skepticism in the quarters where there is already a lot of skepticism.

Putting it to the test

When I have a new idea and want to test it, I’ll often call a specific family member and run it by him. Paraphrasing John F. Kennedy from a very different context, I do this “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” In many respects, especially politically, this family member and I couldn’t be more different. I’m well to the left, he self-describes as “to the right of Genghis Kahn.” For me, he is the very definition of a hard sell.

So I asked him if he’d be willing to pay $10,000 to move up in line for a Covid-19 vaccination. He responded that he’d pay $100,000. His reasoning? He’d done well in the stock market this year and would be happy to both move up and help. He’d spent a career in uniform defending America against military threats. Defending Americans against a deadly disease didn’t seem much different. He could afford it and he’d do it.

To be sure, one person’s opinion isn’t proof a program like this would work, but it did clear a high hurdle for me.

As happens with my family and me, when enough elements come together we find agreement. With the pandemic, by understanding goals correctly and ditching artificial constraints, we build a vaccination program that better serves the nation.

Alan Levine is a technology executive for Wright Williams and Kelly, which specializes in optimizing complex manufacturing environments for products such as integrated circuits and solar cells.

    • If the vaccine uptake is only 30 percent in tier 1, then allowing rich people to pay provides funds to send vaccination vans to marginalized communities that lack reliable transportation. Educational funding is needed to improve vaccine uptake, personal time consuming individual uptake. If it could be reasonably calculated not to slow down vaccine distribution significantly by tier group and improve overall minority vaccination rates would you still be against it just because you hate capitalism, free market solutions, and the rich? Cut off minority noses to spite their faces and yours anyway?

    • A great deal of rich privilege is caused by the same society that complains about it. There will always be wealthy people. However, I do what I can to support local businesses and workers. I delete accounts like Amazon, fb. I don’t own a TV or go to movies. I avoid box stores and chain restaurants or coffee shops. I won’t attend or watch professional sports. I realize it doesn’t solve the problem but it is a moral decision. A walk in the park or tutoring a neighbor kid seem like better options. If the wealthy had photos of themselves getting the shot maybe more people would want it? At this point we can only hope the vaccine works or this entire discussion is useless.

  • I think you have a great idea. Generate funds. Everyone still has a right to the vaccine, but the rich can pay to be first. And it takes care of some of the funds for the not so rich. Brilliant.

  • No no and maybe, with modification. Instead of donating to this cause, donate to raising your own taxes for multiple years. Why not address a more system issue to deal with this civic funding I.e. our tax system. Much of our broader society ills comes from the idea we are taxed to much. The vaccine is value added , it came from the work of tax dollar paid science. Private sector shares in our praise, but Public Health was a government inspired idea which became institutionalized. Accomplishes the same thing, sends different message.

    • We aren’t going to vote to raise our taxes. It is typical of the left to throw away a decent solution that addresses most issues because of ideology. Then bring up something that simply won’t happen and cannot help right now. What purpose does that serve?

      Even if taxes are eventually raised it does not help at the time we need the money which is now.

      I got my first vaccine sunday so i have no personal interest.

  • I like the free market approach, actually, but you are clearly smoking something still illegal under federal law. I know people who could afford $1 million for a shot, and the reason they can afford it is that they would never do something that stupid. You actually might be able to make $500 million to $1 billion using your approach — which would be great if the idiots in government didn’t cost us (the taxpayers) $5 billion to administer such a program!

    By the way, just consider the horrendous inefficiency of the gov doing this in the first place. At $500 per shot (a TERRIBLE price, given the volume!), covering the entire U.S. SHOULD cost “only” $300 billion or so, while the gov has shelled out 10x that amount (and the rest of us have paid that and more).

  • While I’m not going to object in moral grounds (I think the way that vaccines are currently being prioritized to be worse), I do believe that there are some logistical issues the author needs to consider:

    1. The vaccine trials didn’t look at contagiousness. For all we know, the vaccine just alleviates symptoms without actually preventing infection at all. Given other illnesses/vaccines, this is unlikely, but there is not yet the assurance benefit that the author is selling.

    2. There will be a severe reaction in probably one or two per 10,000. In some cases it will just be coincidence. In others, yeah, the vaccine causes it, but it is a fair trade off when folks are likely to get the illness anyway. It is dangerous enough when they put the spotlight on a few governors and public health officials. Giving the vaccine to 500,000 ‘influencers’ first, and then trying to deal with the fallout when 50 of them come down with 103 degree fevers, Ball’s Parsley, an allergic reaction or whatever would be a disaster.

    3. It really isn’t the point of the article, but it bothers me whenever someone says we need vaccination to get us to herd immunity. First, again, we don’t even know for sure if the vaccines will get us to herd immunity, as their impact on disease spread is totally unknown and unstudied. Second, in the last 9 months, we have figured out what part of the population is vulnerable due to age or comorbidities. Last I checked, we had fewer pediatric COVID deaths than flu deaths in a typical year. My county reported that 97% of deaths were with folks with comorbidities. Granted, some of those comorbidities are pretty common, but, still, we can identity a large portion of the population for whom COVID represents a flu-like risk. The goal ought to be getting immunizations into the at-risk population. Herd immunity is inevitable one way or the other, we shouldn’t be distracting ourselves trying to convince healthy 25 year olds to take a vaccine that has a more severe side effect profile the younger you get and that will provide them with little personal benefit when those efforts ought to be focused entirely on getting vaccines into folks where it has a good chance of saving their life.

  • Lines have NOT been too short for the available vaccine. There is not and will not be enough vaccine to meet demand for some time. NO. Absolutely not. Stupidest idea ever no matter how YOU try to rationalize it. NO!

    • My family is in the bio-pharma business and I was told last night that their distribution will put 400M doses in the U.S. by next June, 200M by early 2021. You are looking at at least 4 different companies with approved vaccines during that time.

    • The lines aren’t too short right now. But, people are making up their minds about the vaccine now. Come May, and the combination of weather, widespread immunity (both vaccination and natural), and better treatment options is going to make COVID looks like a lot less of a threat. Are people who are unsure right now, when 3000+ per day are dieing going to change their mind in 5 months when we might be seeing less than 100 per deaths per day?

  • This is one “liberal ” idea I can agree with…another example you could use is the recent “pay/bribe to get the college of your choice” scandal…if many of the wealthy on both sides of the political market can agree on this we’d actually have a win-win-and win…

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