Cities, states experiment with incentives for vaccinations 

States and cities are experimenting with offering incentives and privileges for residents to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as concerns have mounted over the slowdown in vaccinations across the U.S. 

Officials are turning to initiatives such as giving vaccine recipients payments through savings bonds, free drinks or gift cards to motivate Americans to get their COVID-19 shot. Public health and psychology experts said these programs have the potential to bring in more people willing to get the vaccine and that incentives are worth a try to close the country’s gap in vaccinations.

This week, West Virginia committed to giving those aged 16 to 35 who get the vaccine $100 in savings bonds to boost the state’s vaccination numbers. Gov. Jim Justice (R) reported on Monday that 52 percent of the eligible state population has received at least one dose and noted the cost would be “so minuscule” compared with what the state has spent and keeps spending on the pandemic.

Connecticut plans to take a different approach in launching its #CTDrinksOnUs campaign, through which vaccine recipients will be eligible for one free drink with the purchase of food between May 19 and 31 at participating locations.  

Max Reiss, the director of communications for Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D), said the state’s drink program arose as officials and the restaurant industry brainstormed how to reach “herd immunity” — a point at which most of the population is immune to the virus.  

The idea for the program was not “directly linked” to the slowdown of vaccinations seen in the state and nationally, Reiss said.

When asked if the drink incentive had the ability to get the state to a herd immunity point, he responded, “We don’t think it hurts.”

“If there’s an extra bonus that when you go to the restaurant, you can get a drink or a beer or a glass of wine or a soda, we think that’s a nice token that you can enjoy,” he said. “And it shows that if you’re vaccinated, you can do all these things safely.”

City and county governments are also exploring incentive approaches to increase vaccinations, with Chicago working on two programs in which fully vaccinated people would have special access to summer events and special offers for salon and barbershop services. On Wednesday, Harris County in Texas approved up to $250,000 to be used for gift cards, events and other incentives for vaccinated people, the Houston Chronicle reported

Starting on Monday, Detroit is offering $50 prepaid debit cards to anyone who drives another person to get their vaccination, as long as they preregister. Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett said officials hope, through the program, that trusted voices within communities will be inspired to help other members decide to get the COVID-19 shot and therefore raise Detroit’s vaccination numbers.  

“Pushing past our inability to manage and win the argument on social media, we really had to be more inventive about how to get the attention of the greater, grander community,” he said. 

Detroit officials decided on giving the incentive to those who give their “time and effort” to help others get vaccinated instead of paying directly due to concerns about the “ethics of that.”

“Getting vaccinated is an important decision,” Mallett said. “And we didn’t want to try to muddy up that decisionmaking process by trying to encourage people to do what we think is right but pay them to do it.”

The push for incentives comes as the average number of vaccines administered daily in the U.S. has been declining in recent days, which experts have attributed to a waning demand for vaccines after enthusiastic recipients have already gotten their shots.

The U.S. hit a peak in its seven-day average of daily vaccinations on April 13 with 3.38 million, but that number has since fallen to 2.63 million as of Thursday, according to Our World in Data. 

Overall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 55.4 percent of American adults have received at least one dose, and 39 percent are considered fully vaccinated, meaning much of the population is still particularly susceptible to contracting the virus. 

William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases and preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said vaccinating more of the country’s population is important because it will “substantially diminish” COVID-19’s spread and the impact of variants. 

“Anything we can do to provide incentives to get more of those people vaccinated I think is a good thing,” he said. “Whether these incentives work, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m sure they’ll work with some people. There’s no doubt about that, but whether they can really help us turn the tide remains to be seen.”

These state and local governments are taking a page out of some businesses’ playbooks, including Krispy Kreme, which offers a free doughnut every day of 2021 to Americans who prove they got their shot. 

Experts said research shows that incentives can be effective at influencing health behaviors, with Noel Brewer, a professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina, saying incentives are expected to increase vaccinations by about 8 percent. 

“This idea of letting people choose and empowering freedom of choice could be quite appealing to people on the right and on the left, so this seems like a palatable approach,” Brewer said. 

This week in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) also unveiled a reopening plan that connects loosening COVID-19 restrictions to increased vaccination rates. Under the plan, once the state documents that 70 percent of the eligible population received at least one dose, its orders on masks and limitations for public and private gatherings would be dropped. 

Brewer said incentives are stronger when there’s “a clear contingency between an individual’s behavior and the reward,” so Michigan should expect to see “a weaker effect or maybe no effect” when compared to a direct incentive. 

Austin Baldwin, an associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, said in general mandates can be “very effective,” but when it comes to vaccinations, those who are resistant or hesitant may not respond well to vaccine requirements if they’re perceived as “threatening.”

“At least in the current context, incentives might be sort of a more effective approach because incentives at least sort of still value, at a psychological level, that autonomy, and people can feel like they’re making that decision on their own accord,” Baldwin said.

Tags Coronavirus Covid-19 vaccination Gretchen Whitmer Vaccine hesitancy

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