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Transition: Some Pandemic Safety Precautions Lifted, Others Remain

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, I left the house the other day for one of those curbside pickups of a meal - the kind that we've all become used to during the pandemic - and I ran into my neighbor who said that since getting vaccinated, he's already eaten in a restaurant twice. For the first time in the pandemic, my mom got on a plane the other day. She is vaccinated but wore a mask as required. We are in a moment of transition - some safety precautions lifted, others still in place, many people vaccinated, many not. Eight states now report that 70% of adults have at least one shot. That is a number that President Biden wants all states to reach by July 4.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now, as she does just about every Monday. Hey there, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are the states doing?

AUBREY: Well, it's the smaller northeastern states that have met the goal first, including all of New England and New Jersey. Nationwide, 61% of adults have received their first dose, so this is good news. But there are states where vaccinations remain much lower, including in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas. The number of daily vaccinations has been declining nationwide. And Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has pointed to survey data showing more people would be motivated to roll up their sleeves if their employers gave them time off to get the shot and recover from it.

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VIVEK MURTHY: So employers not only have an opportunity to increase vaccination rates. It turns out that they can also help to close the equity gap in vaccinations.

AUBREY: In recent weeks, Steve, big retailers, including Target and Walmart, have announced compensation for hourly employees who get vaccinated.

INSKEEP: OK, makes sense. It's a market economy. If you really need people to do something, make sure they're paid for it.

AUBREY: Yeah. And in Ohio, they have gotten a lot of attention for their Vax-a-Million program. People who get vaccinated could win a million dollars. Other states have jumped on this lottery bandwagon - Oregon, Kentucky, Maryland. New York has rolled out its Vax and Scratch initiative. The big prize - 5 million bucks.

INSKEEP: All right.

AUBREY: Now, Ohio is touting some pretty impressive numbers, Steve, boosting vaccinations. And I talked to a behavioral economist about this - Katy Milkman at the University of Pennsylvania.

KATY MILKMAN: The high jackpot is really alluring. It feels exciting, like a game. And because we overweight the small probability that we might win and imagine that wonderful outcome, they're really highly motivating. And there's lots of research showing that lotteries can be used to change all sorts of other health behaviors.

AUBREY: Now, in Ohio, people under the age of 18 who get vaccinated can be entered to win the lottery to win a four-year scholarship to a public university in the state, so not a million bucks, but an education.

INSKEEP: Oh, sure. Well, it's the Ohio State University, so, you know, it could be - or one of the other public institutions there.

AUBREY: Right.

INSKEEP: Anyway, so the incentives seem to be working. But, of course, we're still moving toward getting more younger people vaccinated. How's that going?

AUBREY: That's right. Well, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said last week about 600,000 people between the ages of 12 and 15 had received their first dose. That's out of the roughly 17 million children in this age group. Now, I should point out the CDC is evaluating a small number of cases of myocarditis in adolescents and young adults who have been vaccinated with the mRNA vaccines, those made by Pfizer and Moderna. This is inflammation of the heart. And for now, what is known is that the cases have been mild.

INSKEEP: OK, let's underline that word mild. But I know that a lot of parents are going to hear that news and sit up. I mean, anything is concerning.

AUBREY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: You know?

AUBREY: I understand that. I mean, experts really don't know if the vaccine is causing the heart inflammation. And the cases are pretty rare, Steve - no higher than the expected baseline rate of myocarditis, meaning the number of cases you'd expect to see in this population.

I spoke to Patricia Stinchfield. She's a nonvoting member of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

PATRICIA STINCHFIELD: It is younger adolescent, young adult males, mostly after Dose 2. And they've all seemed to be mild and are being followed up right now. So at this point in time, we don't have information that says this is cause and effect, but it's enough for us to just take a closer look.

AUBREY: Now, leaders of the American Academy of Pediatrics tell me the group is watching this closely, in touch with the CDC about it. But nothing has changed in the recommendations. Pediatricians are encouraging kids 12 and up to get vaccinated. And the vaccine program is successful, Steve. Cases are down to about 21,000 a day. That's less than half of where they were just a month ago.

INSKEEP: OK, so that leads to another question, Allison. And this is a question about public health, I guess, but it's also about sociology and lifestyles and how people want to spend their time. Do people want to go back to the office in person, those millions who have not been in the office very much the last year?

AUBREY: You know, I think it depends. Many do. Many people have been able to work from home over the last 15 months and have gotten used to it. They like it.

I spoke to David Greenway of UMass Lowell, who's been analyzing workers' reactions to pandemic changes.

DAVID GREENWAY: While work-life balance has always been this perennial struggle, it seems like putting the genie back in the bottle after this taste of autonomy and flexibility is going to be difficult for employers, especially if the old policies are just simply reimplemented.

AUBREY: You know, this long pause has given people to adjust to a new way. Some people have moved to be near family or to be in a place with a better quality of life, say to the mountains or to water. We've all gotten used to, you know, slurping our coffee and doing our work in our yoga pants. So some people may bristle at having to snap back to the way it was in March of 2020.

INSKEEP: Never mind bristling. I could even imagine people feeling some anxiety about going into the office even though they did it for years before.

AUBREY: I think that's right. And nothing stokes anxiety like uncertainty. So the sooner employers can be clear about what is expected, what return policies will be, the sooner workers can plan. There are a number of things workers cannot control. So focus on the things you can control - planning for child care, planning your commute. Ask for more flexibility if you want it.

University of Pennsylvania's Katy Milkman says workers may have some bargaining power now.

MILKMAN: It's a tight labor market right now. And there is always the option to say, OK, my employer is not flexible on this. Should I consider another opportunity?

AUBREY: So the pandemic really has led many people or some people to reevaluate their priorities.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks for your insights, as always.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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