Vaccine incentives from ice cream to $1M: Health officials asking people to get the shot

Laurie Allen
For Columbus CEO
Ricci Jackson receives his second COVID-19 vaccine clinic from Beth Anne Borne, RN at Columbus Public Health

What’s your motivation?

It’s a question local government, health and business leaders continue to ask as they push to get more people vaccinated against COVID-19.

In Franklin County, roughly 48 percent of eligible residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 42 percent being fully vaccinated.

Despite a noticeable uptick after Ohio kicked off its Vax-a-Million campaign, demand for the vaccine has waned since April, spurring health experts to identify creative ways to unite people and vaccines.

“We’re in this over the long term. It’s all about making sure we’re closing the gaps,” says Franklin County Health Commissioner Joe Mazzola. “We know we’re not going to vaccinate 10,000 people a day.”

Public and private sectors have come together to offer vaccine incentives ranging from free ice cream, $50 gift cards and paid time off to a remote chance of winning $1 million in hopes of encouraging vaccination.

The Columbus Health Department has partnered with the Short North Business Alliance, Hollywood Casino and local restaurants to offer freebies to those getting vaccinated. Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts says she wasn’t always a fan of incentivizing the vaccine. “If you had asked me in February, I would have been very anti-incentive,” she says.

But she changed her mind after talking with colleagues nationwide and concluding that something extra might be required to get people to roll up their sleeves. She also recalled that the department has used gift cards to encourage lead screening in the past.

Tangible incentives like cash or free food and drink are useful because “they keep the topic current,” says Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, system medical director of infectious diseases at OhioHealth. “Who doesn’t like to get something free?”

Another approach to boosting vaccination rates is through targeted delivery. “We need to go specifically to where people are. A church, a restaurant, someplace people already are choosing to be,” Roberts says.

A COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Columbus Public Health photographed on Friday, March 19, 2021.

Mazzola says, “We meet people where they are,” including bingo halls, pop-up clinics and the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, where the department vaccinated about 150 food clients over two days in May.

Vaccination clinics also have popped up at sporting events like Columbus Clippers games and the Memorial Golf Tournament

With decreased demand and the closing of mass vaccination sites, health and business leaders are scrutinizing data and targeting ZIP codes or age groups where people are under-vaccinated. Roberts says research shows while people under 30 want the vaccine and plan to get it eventually, “they won’t necessarily go out of their way,” which is why the department is looking at taking the vaccine to Easton or other venues that draw that age group.

“We’ve taken an intentional equity approach to address accessibility,” Mazzola says, looking to the department’s new Equity Advisory Council to help identify and execute grassroots tactics, which could include going door-to-door. “We’re having active conversations about that.”

Understanding what discourages people from getting the vaccine requires an almost laser-like approach. “We have to address specific concerns by really dissecting each community,” Gastaldo says. For example, members of the LGBTQ+ community have had questions about whether someone living with HIV can receive the vaccine. The answer is yes, he says.

Can businesses mandate vaccinations?

The business community has its own questions to answer. Don DePerro, president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, says he and others were “surprised that the faucet opened so quickly and to such a great degree” when the state lifted mask and social distancing orders.

Businesses, already in the midst of a crippling labor shortage, now find themselves grappling with whether they can mandate masks and vaccines. “With unskilled and semi-skilled workers, you have to be very creative,” DePerro says.

The chamber is asking its unvaccinated employees to be tested weekly at their own expense and show proof they don’t have COVID, DePerro says. While he doesn’t believe businesses should be punitive, “What do you do when 70 to 90 percent of your employees have been vaccinated but the others haven’t?”

Mazzola says businesses have incentives for making sure employees get vaccinated via federal tax credits for giving them paid time off to receive and recover from the vaccine if necessary.

It’s important for business leaders to share their personal experiences to reach people who may be hesitant, Gastaldo says. In all instances, he says his job is to listen to questions and concerns in a respectful, non-judgmental way.

Are vaccines experimental?

For those who worry that the vaccines are experimental and not proven, Gastaldo says roughly 300 million doses have been administered in the United States, and the drugs being used underwent the exact same research protocols as others. Also, there is now enough clinical data for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration pending detailed inspections of all manufacturing plants, he says.

“The vaccines are not experimental. The experiment is not getting the vaccine,” Gastaldo says, particularly as new variants emerge. That means even those who have had COVID-19 should get the vaccine to remain protected against mutations.

Other common reasons for holding out are inconvenience, perceived low risk and anxiety about side effects. In a letter to patients, Dr. Robert Stone, medical director at Central Ohio Primary Care, which serves more than 400,000 patients, addressed concerns.

“A lot of people have some fatigue or even some more acute symptoms like fever [after receiving the vaccine]. Actually, that lets you know that your immune system is working and the vaccine should do a good job protecting you,” Stone’s letter says. “If you do get these symptoms, it is a great excuse to take a nap and relax.” Any side effects, he says, are far better than contracting COVID-19, which can cause long-term, debilitating changes.

Breaking down barriers is a constant and includes making it easier to schedule, especially second shots. While many providers make the second-dose appointment the same day a person receives their first shot, some retail pharmacies and others use a cumbersome process that requires people to resubmit information, including health insurance.

Of the three vaccines being used now and three others slated for rollout late this year, only the Johnson & Johnson product is delivered in a single dose. Mazzola says the Ohio Department of Health “has been great about letting us order what we need” to get the J&J vaccine to populations with the most barriers.

In appealing to the under-30 crowd, fear of missing out, or FOMO as it’s known in text and social media circles, might persuade someone to get the shot, Gastaldo says. Beyond gift cards and free drinks are the intangible incentives, he says. “We want to celebrate being vaccinated so we can safely bring the joys and pleasures back into our lives.”

Laurie Allen is a freelance writer.