Some pandemic safety precautions lifted, others remain: NPR

An update on coronavirus cases and numbers. And, as the pandemic reaches a new phase, many workers are anticipating a return to the labor market. Experts offer advice for reintegration.



STEVE INSKEEP, HTE:

You know, I left the house the other day for one of those curbside pickups of a meal — the kind we’ve all grown accustomed to during the pandemic — and met my neighbor who has said that since he had been vaccinated, he had already eaten in a restaurant twice. For the first time in the pandemic, my mother flew out the other day. She is vaccinated but wore a mask as it should. 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 vaccine. It’s a number President Biden wants all states to reach by July 4.

NPR’s Allison Aubrey joins us now, as she does pretty much every Monday. Hello, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are the states doing?

AUBREY: Well, it was the smaller northeastern states that hit the mark first, including all of New England and New Jersey. Nationally, 61% of adults received their first dose, so that’s good news. But there are states where vaccinations remain much lower, including Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas. The number of daily vaccinations has decreased across the country. And Surgeon General Vivek Murthy pointed to survey data showing that more people would be motivated to roll up their sleeves if their employers gave them time to get vaccinated and recover.

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VIVEK MURTHY: So employers don’t just have the ability to increase vaccination rates. It turns out they can also help close the immunization equity gap.

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

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

AUBREY: Yeah. And in Ohio, they got 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 train – Oregon, Kentucky, Maryland. New York rolled out its Vax and Scratch initiative. The jackpot – 5 million dollars.

INSKEEP: Alright.

AUBREY: Now Ohio is touting some pretty impressive numbers, Steve, increasing vaccinations. And I talked to a behavioral economist about it – Katy Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania.

KATY DAIRY: The high jackpot is really enticing. It’s exciting, like a game. And because we overweight the low probability that we might win and imagine that wonderful outcome, they’re really very motivating. And plenty of research shows that lotteries can be used to change all sorts of other health-related behaviors.

AUBREY: Now in Ohio, people under 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 dollars , but an education.

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

AUBREY: That’s right.

INSKEEP: Anyway, so the incentives seem to be working. But, of course, we are always trying to get more young people vaccinated. How’s it going?

AUBREY: That’s right. Well, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said last week that 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 that age group. Now, I must point out that 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. It is an inflammation of the heart. And so far, what we know is that the cases have been mild.

INSKEEP: OK, let’s emphasize that sweet word. But I know a lot of parents are going to hear this news and sit up. I mean, everything is worrying.

AUBREY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: You know?

AUBREY: I understand that. I mean, the experts really don’t know if the vaccine causes heart inflammation. And the cases are quite rare, Steve – no higher than the expected background rate of myocarditis, which is the number of cases you would expect to see in this population.

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

PATRICIA STINCHFIELD: It’s younger teenagers, young adult males, mostly after dose 2. And they all seemed to be mild and are being tracked right now. So, at this point, we don’t have any information that this is cause and effect, but we just need to take a closer look.

AUBREY: Now the leaders of the American Academy of Pediatrics tell me that the group is monitoring this closely, in contact with the CDC on this. But nothing has changed in the recommendations. Pediatricians encourage children 12 and older to get vaccinated. And the vaccination program is a success, Steve. Cases have fallen to around 21,000 a day. That’s less than half of what they were just a month ago.

INSKEEP: OK, that brings us to another question, Allison. And it’s a matter of public health, I guess, but it’s also a matter of 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 haven’t been in the office much in the last year?

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

I spoke to David Greenway of UMass Lowell, who analyzed worker reactions to pandemic shifts.

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

AUBREY: You know, this long break has allowed people to adjust to a new way of doing things. Some people have moved to be near family or to be somewhere with a better quality of life, say in the mountains or by the water. We’ve all gotten used to, you know, sipping our coffee and doing our jobs in our yoga pants. So some people may bristle at having to go back to how they were in March 2020.

INKEEP: Hair doesn’t matter. I could even imagine people feeling some anxiety about going to the office even though they did for years before.

AUBREY: I think that’s true. And nothing fuels anxiety like uncertainty. So the sooner employers can be clear about what is expected, what the 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 childcare, planning your commute. Ask for more flexibility if you wish.

Katy Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania says workers can now have some bargaining power.

DAIRY: It’s a tight job market right now. And there’s always the option of saying, OK, my employer isn’t flexible about that. Should I consider another opportunity?

AUBREY: So the pandemic has really caused a lot of people or some people to reassess their priorities.

INSKEEP: Allison, thank you for your ideas, as always.

AUBREY: Thanks Steve.

INSKEEP: This is Allison Aubrey from NPR.

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Susan W. Lloyd