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Experts Weigh In On The CDC's Gamble That Fewer Masks Will Lead To More Vaccinations


People who are fully vaccinated can now safely shed their face masks in many situations. That is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week. In changing its rules, the CDC is making a tacit gamble that easing mask rules will inspire more people to get their shots, but will it? Or will many people just rip off their masks regardless of their vaccination status? NPR's Yuki Noguchi talked to people who study behavior about how they predict people will react.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Katherine Milkman is fully vaccinated, but masks have become a protective habit, so she still feels uneasy about exposing her entire face.

KATHERINE MILKMAN: I feel like, oh, my God, I came outside naked if I don't have my mask on.

NOGUCHI: Milkman is an economics professor at Wharton School of Business. She wrote a recent book about how to change people's behavior, so she's also thought a lot about how people might react to the CDC's rollback of its mask guidance.

MILKMAN: What the CDC is betting on is that people care about their own health and they're going to be nervous. Holy moly, you know, I better keep my mask on because I didn't get the vaccine, and maybe I'd better get a vaccine.

NOGUCHI: But it's a gamble and one without historical precedent. The risk, of course, is that unvaccinated people will no longer feel compelled to wear masks at all. But Milkman says the new mask guidelines put the incentives on the unvaccinated, and that's the right place.

MILKMAN: The only people who are hurt by this change are the people who aren't doing the right thing and aren't getting the vaccine. I do think it's going to move people toward vaccination.

NOGUCHI: Swarthmore College assistant professor Syon Bhanot says he thinks relatively few people are ideologically opposed to vaccination. Most of the people hesitant to get the shots are likely willing, he says, if not exactly eager.

SYON BHANOT: A lot of the early data was people just kind of waiting and seeing.

NOGUCHI: So what's the best way to motivate them? Is this change in guidelines the best incentive? Bhanot says probably not. He says a local bar offering free drinks to those with proof of vaccination is a stronger sell.

BHANOT: Dude, they're giving out free beer. That's a little bit easier to point to as a justification.

NOGUCHI: Not just beer. Retailers and employers are giving away doughnuts, burgers, cash or paid time off. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine even announced a lottery awarding a million dollars every week to a vaccinated resident. Since then, the number of Ohioans vaccinating increased, though it's not clear it's related. Duke University professor Dan Ariely says just offering rewards alone won't get everyone to get their shot.

DAN ARIELY: I think it would help the people who are on the fence, but it's not going to be enough.

NOGUCHI: He says it leaves room for people to pretend they're vaccinated even if they aren't.

ARIELY: The logic of this easing the constraints is predicated on the fact that people would be honest. And if people stop being honest, we will not get the benefit of it.

NOGUCHI: Basically, Ariely takes a dimmer view of mankind. It's not enough to trust that people are fully vaccinated but not verify that they are, he says. The fastest path to ending this pandemic is to require and enforce proof of vaccination, as they do in Israel, to board a plane or to go into a movie theater.

ARIELY: And it's not that I don't understand it. It's a violation of privacy. I would much prefer to have the honor system. But at the same time, I don't think we're there.

NOGUCHI: It wouldn't be popular, he admits, but at least it eliminates the potential for lying. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.
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