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Do COVID-19 vaccine incentives work?

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Posted at 2:20 PM, Jul 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-09 19:32:13-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From million dollar lotto prizes to amusement park tickets, health experts and elected officials are getting creative to encourage more people to roll up their sleeves and get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Late last month, the Kansas City Royals, Price Chopper and Blue KC teamed up to host a vaccination event at Kauffman Stadium. Fans not only got their shots, but also free tickets to a regular season game.

"Let's see if we can give the people who are maybe on the fence a little extra incentive to go," Isaac Riffel, Senior Director of Ballpark Operations with the Kansas City Royals, said ahead of the event.

Recently the Unified Government Public Health Department announced adults who are vaccinated have the chance to win $500 Visa gift cards. Kids ages 12 to 17 can get free passes to Worlds of Fun, Oceans of Fun and Dave and Busters.

But do incentives like these work?

The answer, when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, is both yes and no.

Before the program started in Wyandotte County, the health department was seeing declines from week to week in new people coming in to get vaccinated.

After the incentives launched, there was a modest increase from an average of 95 first doses per day to 108. Last week, the numbers grew to 134 doses per day.

However, vaccinations are still down compared to the first week of June, which saw about 163 first doses per day.

"While we certainly aren't seeing the vaccination numbers each day that we saw a few months ago, we're glad the numbers aren't continuing to decline," Janell Friesen, a public information officer for the health department, wrote in an email to 41 Action News, "We hope that continuing to provide incentives in the coming weeks and months will encourage more folks to consider getting vaccinated."

However, a new study from Boston University suggests lottery-based incentives aren't effective.

Researchers studied vaccination rates in Ohio both before and after the state's million dollar lottery was announced, and the results showed the program did not lead to a spike in vaccinations.

"Incentives are very, very powerful, but the issue here is that the people who are not yet vaccinated are the people who have not responded to incentives," said Associate Professor Iwan Barankay of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Barankay pointed out people who already rolled up their sleeves responded to the ultimate incentive of being healthy and living longer.

For those who have not done so, it's important to understand why.

Barankay studies the use of incentives to encourage patients to take their medications. In his research and when it comes to the vaccine, he explained there are obstacles that a prize or free tickets can't overcome.

"People are facing really peculiar barriers that we might trivialize," he said, "We might say, 'Well how come you can't go to the vaccination station?' They might say, 'Well, how do you park or what do I do with my children?'"

To address those logistical concerns, Barankay recommends door-to-door campaigns, an initiative proposed by the Biden administration.

However, Missouri Governor Mike Parson shot down that idea earlier this week. In a tweet he wrote such campaigns "would NOT be an effective OR a welcome strategy" in the state.

While some people face logistical barriers, others have not been vaccinated because they have safety concerns. In those cases, incentives alone aren't enough to change their minds.

However, large monetary incentives could provide motivation to do more research into the vaccine.

"If I give you a possible reward of $10,000, then you would do the research to figure out how to get it, right? But a few dollars don't really give you the incentive to talk to the right people and understand the information, which is really complicated to do," Barankay said.

For the vaccine hesitant, Barankay suggests continued outreach in communities with low vaccination rates, since people tend to copy behavior of friends and family members.

He also believes there should be more conversation about the legalities surrounding mandates, a much more controversial approach.

At the end of the day, while incentives can work in some cases, they shouldn't be seen as a silver bullet for herd immunity.

"What I'm worried about is that people think that we can use these lotteries or these handing out vouchers or Krispy Kreme donuts, and this will fix it. I don't think so. We have to have a portfolio approach," Barankay said.