To Vaccinate the Idiots Before the Good

Hypothetically, would society be better served by vaccinating people who follow guidelines before those who ignore them?

Setting aside the policy decisions made for vaccination priorities, including for folks working hard to keep pantries full of anti-stress foods, the nurses, sanitation workers, and so on. And including all the older folks and folks with conditions that put them at extra risk. Set them aside. (Mostly because they’ll get their shots first anyway, but also because their vaccinations represent the primary population risk, so once they are covered the worries already drop off a good bit.)

The remainder of the population still needs vaccines to reach herd immunity. That raises a hypothetical question: should people who did a good job, who wore masks, washed hands, kept distance, all the sane things to protect their communities get the vaccine before the rip-roaring freedom types?

The surprising answer, or maybe not, is no. In fact, the opposite! The spread is biased from the second group. It’s from the people who can’t control themselves. They are the ones who need the vaccine, because vaccines do two things:

  1. Vaccines protect the vaccinated.
  2. Vaccines protect the community.

And the math on that works a little funny. It works a little like a loan, where each subsequent payment has a sliding tradeoff between interest and principal. In the case of vaccination, the tradeoff is between individual protection and community protection. As you go along, as more get covered, the individual protection remains, but you’re filling up the community protection as you get closer to herd immunity.

Think of the virus as fire and every person represents a potential torch. The vaccine douses a person’s torch, which protects them from being lit, but also therefore from spreading the fire further. And as we bounce around our world, the fire has to keep spreading or it is gone for good.

Because the freedom types are a big source of spread, vaccinating them first would douse their extra-big very bouncy torches. I’m sure people with better grasp of the math than I could quantify the difference. You turn people into particles and you bounce them around. Mask-wearing distancers move slow and have reduced collision speeds, perhaps some other property that reduces transmissibility, like small particle size. Freedom particles move fast, perhaps have a larger particle size.

Imagining the bell curve of particle types (on following guidelines only; curves would look different for other COVID factors like disease risk or impact of protective measures), it probably humps, in order of prevalence: those strictly adhering, with some minor number of slip-ups or intentional breakages; those who ignore at least one of the main guidelines (e.g., gathering size); those who only follow guidelines when and where they are mandated (e.g., wearing mask in a store); and those who actively ignore all guidelines, even when mandated.

Hoping people had a Merry Christmas. Biden’s inauguration is in about 3.5 weeks.


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