The good news is that safe and effective vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer are on the way soon and that more are likely to follow.
The bad news is an usual combination: There won't be enough vaccine on hand to meet initial demand, yet there is also a need to urge everyone to get shots.
I have some suggestions: An unusual type of charity auction, a bit of technology and a few nudges can help.
The problem that needs to be addressed quickly is how to allocate the roughly 20 million (two-dose) vaccinations that may be available in the U.S. in December and January. Although states will be given the final authority, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel recommends that the initial distribution go to two groups — front-line health care workers and residents of nursing homes, where a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths have occurred.
These groups are worthy, but many others deserve high priority as well. These include teachers, food workers, people with comorbidities and those over 65. The dilemma is that as many as 140 million people may be in one or more of those categories, and even if everything goes smoothly, it will take well into the spring before they can all be vaccinated.
Given that supply chains strained to keep up with the demand for mundane goods like flour and paper towels early in the pandemic, the distribution of vaccines won't be easy.
All this means that demand will exceed supply for quite a while.
Economic theory offers a standard prescription for dealing with shortages. It is, basically: Let markets work. This would mean that those willing to pay the most would get the vaccine first.
Wisely, policymakers are not following this course. Nurses, other front-line workers and most nursing home residents could not win a bidding battle with billionaires. And, to be clear, they should not have to.
Yet there is a small but useful role that prices might play in determining who gets priority in the second round of vaccines — after the first 20 million people have gotten their shots.
At that point, perhaps sometime early this winter, suppose a small proportion of doses are sold in what would amount to a charity auction.
Who might be the winning bidders? Very wealthy individuals and high-tech companies are likely to account for some of the demand, along with businesses that employ high-profile talent like professional athletes and entertainers.
Just imagine how much the National Basketball Association, whose season will start around Christmas, would be willing to pay to ensure that none of its players or staff would be infected. The same goes for Hollywood studios and television production companies eager to go back to work.
The prospect of selling precious vaccine to celebrity athletes and entertainers, hedge fund magnates and tech billionaires may strike you as immoral, exacerbating the inequality this disease has already inflicted. But before you dismiss this idea as outrageous, let me make three points.
First, the very purpose of the charity auction would be to redistribute money from the rich to the poor. Think of it as a voluntary wealth tax. This money could be used to help people who have suffered most in the pandemic: those who have lost their jobs and face evictions, whose health has been permanently impaired, who face grievous hardship of all kinds.
Depending on prices and quantities, billions of dollars could be raised that could be spent to help those who need it most. Robin Hood in action.
Second, be realistic. The alternative to this sort of legal market is almost certain to be a black market for early vaccinations, which might be obtained by flying to another jurisdiction, or via entrepreneurial intermediaries. As the bioethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University says: "Anything that's seen as lifesaving, life-preserving and that's in short supply creates black markets."
Deep-pocketed sports leagues have already managed to conduct daily testing with quick results. If the rich are going to find a way to jump the line in any case, why not make sure that the payments made to grease the skids go to a good cause?
Third, one reason that the charity auction feels wrong is that it makes transparent what is typically opaque: Rich and powerful people in every society manage, one way or another, to obtain superior health care. Is that immoral? Perhaps. But it would be naive to pretend that it doesn't happen. And it would be a shame to let that naiveté prevent the transfer of much-needed money from the rich to the poor. Are the "facilitators" who would make the same thing happen in other ways more deserving?
The need for a nudge
What's more, at some point the main policy attention will shift from deciding who goes first to figuring out how to nudge reluctant people to go and get their shots — and not one shot but two — which will be necessary for the vaccines to work properly and produce herd immunity.
Celebrities are public influencers, by definition. If they make eye-popping auction payments for a vaccine, they could persuade many thousands of others to seek inoculations.
What else can be done to get the widest participation possible? Three words: Make it easy!
That means making the process for the first shot smooth. No long lines! Then, at the time people are vaccinated, immediately schedule their second shot and urge them to make specific plans to come. Next, send them electronic reminders. These methods are well proven.
To promote coronavirus vaccinations generally, I also suggest offering a perk to those who have been inoculated, one that could also help accelerate the economic recovery.
At an appropriate time, give people who have taken both shots a COVID-19 "health passport" that certifies complete vaccination. Ideally, it would be electronic, stored on phones or on cards that can be swiped.
In addition to the vaccine confirmation, it would need to include contact information and a photo ID so that it could reliably be used to gain admission to airplane flights, restaurants, bars, concerts, schools and college campuses. (The contact information is crucial for tracking people down in the case of possible health issues, and if booster shots are necessary. It must be national, because people move around.)
This concept is recommended in a report from the Tony Blair Institute, led by the former British prime minister.
Unfortunately, though, the existing federal plans in the United States call for providing those vaccinated merely with a paper document, a decidedly 20th-century approach that would not meet public health needs and that would be easy to counterfeit.
There is a better alternative. Making a health passport work reliably and safely, with privacy issues resolved, would require some technology, legal expertise and political goodwill, but all of this is possible. After all, many states already were planning to upgrade driver's licenses in the United States into so-called Real ID employing similar technology, but COVID-19 delayed that initiative. Unlike Real ID, the health passport needs to be made available to everyone, including undocumented immigrants and children, because everyone needs to be vaccinated.
The states and federal agencies should cooperate to make this happen. Maybe at warp speed?
Richard H. Thaler is professor of economics at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, and an author of "Nudge." He won the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. On Twitter: @R_Thaler. He wrote this article for the New York Times.