Vaccine Incentives Seem To Be Working, And That's What Matters

Some States Are Getting Very Creative With Their Vaccine Incentives, And We Support It

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It looked like, for a while at least, we had Covid under control. Enough of us were distancing and following mask mandates that life started looking “normal” again.  The kids were going back to school (thank you, Jesus). We were starting to wear nightclothes at night and daytime clothes during the day, and we were trading in our ratty slippers for some shoes with actual soles. And now this.

Our numbers don’t look great. It’s been nearly 2 years since Covid hit our shores and we’re not exactly where we’d hoped to be. Last week, the U.S. saw 115,862 new cases. We’re not just talking about “Covid” anymore; now we’re contending with offshoots like Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta—and who knows how far we’ll get in the Greek alphabet?

Many were willing (if begrudgingly) to strap on a mask and that went a long way towards protecting us and others. But now we have more than a shield—we have vaccine ammunition. But only 58.2 % Americans are vaccinated at this point, and another 25% say that they will “refuse the vaccine outright if offered.” 

The leftover 27.8% are a bit wishy-washy. and, without them, it’s questionable whether we will quash Covid anytime soon. So, how can we persuade that tentative contingency to get in gear and get vaccinated?

The CDC and Fauci, through public service announcements, have pummeled the public with information about the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness. But it looks like it will take more than government-supplied information to sway those who are hesitant.

Of course, there are different routes to accomplish this goal. Bandwagon yard signs announce, “I’m vaccinated against Covid-19 because I want to protect my community”; figures like the Dalai Lama, Britney Spears, and Tyler Perry publicly push the vaccine. 

And, Dolly Parton absolutely outdoes herself in her video endorsement where she belts out one of her most famous tunes, replacing the word “Jolene” with the apropos “vaccine.” (Then she faux-bullies the  unvaccinated and tells them to not be such a “chicken squat.” Priceless.) 

The “I got my Covid-19 vaccination” stickers are nice.  And the anti-vaxxer “regret videos,” where rasping, tube-connected patients urge others to get vaccinated “before it’s too late,” could be horrifyingly persuasive to a percentage of viewers. 

I wonder how effective, as a whole, these strategies are at motivating folks to make that vaccination appointment?  Maybe a bit.  

One thing that does seem to be making a measurable impact is vaccine incentives. They fall in categories ranging from underwhelming to enticing to mouth-wateringly lavish–and, as is expected, different incentives attract different people. Teton County, Wyoming is proud to trade “shots for swag,” because who doesn’t need more koozies and lanyards? And God love Indiana for its almost-tempting offer of a single box of Girl Scout cookies (they’re probably not even Thin Mints) and Minnesota for that “free or discounted drink at participating establishments starting May 28 through June 30.” Woo-hoo. 

Other incentives seem less of a micro-effort, like New Jersey’s offer of lots of free beer, or Krispy Kreme’s generous not-ending-anytime-soon donut per day. Washington hopes to attract prospective vaccine customers with gaming systems and smart speakers; Maine with hunting and fishing licenses; Nevada with state park passes and tickets to fairs and amusement parks. Maryland offers $100 to motivate state employees.

Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway is tempting people aged 16 and older with “the thrill of driving their car or truck on the 2.66-mile track. Drivers and their riders will take two laps behind a pace car at highway speed, including the 33-degree-high banks.” Though I don’t know what that last part means, I know there is a certain population who would–and those 33 degrees would be plenty to get them to a vaccine clinic. 

Sometimes the stakes are higher. West Virginians 12 to 17 years of age can win four-year full-ride scholarships, including room-and-board, tuition, and books, to any West Virginia state college or university; Illinoisans are automatically entered in a $10 million dollars vaccine sweepstakes. Californians vie for a total of  $10.5 million, and Michiganians compete for a $50,000 daily drawing. 

According to the New York Times, incentives are making a difference. Citing a study conducted last month by the U.C.L.A. Covid-19 Health and Politics Project, New York Times contributor Lynn Vavrek reports that researchers randomly sent messages about financial incentives to unvaccinated respondents. It seems that “a third of the unvaccinated population said a cash payment would make them more likely to get a shot. The benefits were largest for those in the group getting $100, which increased willingness (34 percent said they would get vaccinated) by six points over the $25 group.”  

Ohio saw this in action after the state announced their Vax-a-Million lottery. Within less than a week. vaccination rates rose by 28%, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

While Democrats seem more likely to respond to the cash reward, self-declared Republicans were more likely to be swayed by the lifting of behavioral restrictions: “On average, relaxing the mask and social distancing guidelines increased vaccine uptake likelihood by 13 points. The largest gains came from Republicans, who reported an 18-point increase in willingness to get vaccinated.” 

Hawaii certainly took this into account. Alongside pizza for a year (thanks to good ol’ Papa John’s) and airline tickets, Hawaii promises that once the state hits a 70% vaccination rate, “all restrictions will be terminated, including social gatherings, travel restrictions, and restaurant capacity limits.”

Some pooh-pooh incentives and think they are just a form of bribery–but, if they work, I’m all for them no matter what you call them. And then there are those who claim they don’t work–and in some cases that’s true. Not every incentive appeals to every individual who is yet to be vaccinated. One person, with modest aims and a sweet tooth, might drool over those Girls Scout shortbreads; another might be lured in by the prospect of gratis vacations and spa days. And yes, some anti-vaxxers won’t be persuaded by a zillion bucks or the promise of eternal life. I wish, though, that the prospect of a return to some semblance of pre-Covid normalcy were enough to convince everyone.