June 20, 2021

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California launches incentive program for COVID vaccinations – Los Angeles Times

7 min read

In the latest, and most audacious effort yet to boost California’s flagging COVID-19 vaccination rates, state officials on Thursday announced what appears to be the largest inoculation incentive in the nation: the chance for 10 residents to win $1.5 million apiece.

The goal of the multimillion dollar giveaway is simple: Give residents every possible motivation to finally roll up their sleeves as the state’s vaccine rollout enters its next, critical phase.

“Some Californians weren’t ready to get their COVID-19 vaccine on day one, and that’s OK,” Dr. Tomás Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health and the state’s public health officer, said in a statement. “This program is designed to encourage those who need extra support to get vaccinated and help keep California safe.”

Along with the 10 grand prizes — the winners of which will be chosen June 15, the date the state is set to fully reopen its economy — California is also putting up 30 prizes of $50,000 each, with half the winners selected on June 4 and the rest on June 11.

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All Californians who have gotten at least one dose will be eligible for those prizes, and those who have previously received their shots are already entered, according to state officials.

Should someone under 18 win, the prize will be put in a savings account until they come of age.

Additionally, starting Thursday, the next 2 million people who begin and finish their COVID-19 vaccine series will automatically be eligible for either a $50 prepaid card or a $50 grocery gift card that can be used at supermarkets like Ralphs, Food 4 Less, Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions, Safeway and Andronico’s.

Officials peg the total size of California’s incentive program at $116.5 million.

To date, providers statewide have administered more than 36 million COVID-19 vaccines, and 53.4% of all Californians have gotten at least one dose to date, according to data compiled by The Times.

But despite that overall progress, California’s vaccination pace has slowed markedly in recent weeks. The average number of doses being administered statewide has dropped from a peak of about 400,000 per day to closer to 200,000.

And with the state now less than three weeks away from its planned reopening, officials say time is of the essence to ensure California is shielded against any potential increases in transmission.

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“We’re doing everything it takes to get Californians vaccinated as we approach June 15 to help us fully reopen safely,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement.

The cash for the vaccination incentive program will come from California’s general fund, said a Newsom budget spokesman. State tax revenues are projected to exceed earlier estimates by more than $75 billion by next summer, allowing the governor and lawmakers to fund a variety of programs.

Newsom intends to tap into money set aside for pandemic disaster relief and later replenish that account with a portion of the state’s $27-billion share of federal COVID-19 relief funds recently approved by Congress and President Biden.

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Although the $116.5-million pales in comparison to California’s estimated $267.8-billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, it’s still a sizable amount of cash — roughly three times as much as Newsom’s budget proposes to spend on surge capacity for Cal Fire during this year’s wildfire season and far more than his budget’s $3-million plan to study the needs of public health departments, even as those local agencies insist their needs are well known.

The pivot to using incentives to turn around the state’s flagging inoculation pace underscores the shifting dynamic of the vaccination campaign from a landscape where demand for doses far outstripped supply to one where those left in the queue are, for a variety of reasons, less eager about getting their shots.

But with the state still far short of the level of widespread immunity experts believe necessary to end the pandemic, and with California’s full reopening fast approaching, officials acknowledge the importance of tearing down any remaining barriers to access — and, yes, offering some goodies.

“If there’s a way to help nudge people who are still just waiting to get vaccinated because it hasn’t been the most convenient time or they haven’t had time to schedule it, we’re hoping that these thank-you gifts remind them how important it is to come in,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

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Along with more practical inducements — such as partnering with Uber and Lyft to provide free roundtrip rides to some vaccination sites — the L.A. County Department of Public Health also staged a sweepstakes for adult residents who received their first dose last weekend.

The grand prize? Two Lakers season tickets.

Ferrer said the hope is that offering additional incentives will accelerate residents’ willingness to get inoculated ahead of June 15, when California will lift coronavirus-related capacity restrictions, rescind physical distancing requirements for attendees, customers and guests at almost all businesses and other institutions and begin allowing people who are fully vaccinated to go without masks in most situations.

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“The biggest gift we all know that we’re giving ourselves and each other is that gift of protection,” Ferrer said during a briefing this week. “So I know the vast majority of people are motivated by that.”

For those who need a little more convincing to get their free COVID-19 vaccine, that’s where incentives come in.

In the San Joaquin County city of Lodi, for instance, officials said residents who received their first dose on or after May 6 would be eligible for a $25 credit on their utility bill upon completing their inoculation series.

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Long Beach is holding daily drawings for those receiving their first doses. Prizes have included Apple AirPods headphones, complimentary hotel stays and Nintendo Switch game consoles.

According to the city, vaccination appointments have doubled since the incentive program began earlier this month.

“There will be other types of incentives that we’ll do,” Mayor Robert Garcia said this week. “I’m a kind of ‘everything on the table’ person. I think we should just try whatever we can to get more people vaccinated.”

And in Santa Clara County, officials this month provided special perks for some teens and their families — including the chance to visit a locker room at Levi’s Stadium and $10 gift cards from Starbucks or Chipotle.

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It’s not just government agencies that are getting in on the giveaways. The Hollywood Pantages Theatre is offering those who get vaccinated at a June 12 clinic the chance to win tickets to the smash musical “Hamilton.”

Companies also have made their own incentives available. United Airlines is offering five grand prizes of one year of free travel to any of the airline’s global destinations for themselves and a companion for people who upload their COVID-19 vaccine card to their frequent flier account.

And starting June 1, CVS is offering customers who either received or plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine a chance to enter sweepstakes, including prizes of tickets to the Super Bowl in Los Angeles, cruises, a vacation to Bermuda, backstage passes to the iHeartRadio Music Festival, and five cash prizes of $5,000 for family reunions.

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California is the latest, but far from the only, state to unveil a wide-ranging incentive program.

Ohio has grabbed headlines with its “Vax-a-Million” lottery program — offering five adults $1-million prizes and, for five adolescents and teenagers, full-ride four-year college scholarships to those who have received at least one vaccine dose.

The state appears to have hit the jackpot with the concept. Ohio saw a 55% increase in its vaccination rate among adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s in the days after announcing the program, and vaccination rates doubled in some counties, according to Andy Slavitt, a senior Biden administration advisor on the pandemic.

“We encourage states to use their creativity to draw attention to vaccines and to get their states and the country back to normal as quickly as possible,” he said during a briefing Tuesday. “This includes lottery programs for vaccinated individuals, cash or in-kind transfers or other monetary incentives for individuals to get vaccinated.”

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Some New York vaccine sites are offering free state lottery scratch-off tickets with a grand prize of $5 million to adults who get their first dose of vaccine, as well as free state park passes. Vaccinated teenagers and 12-year-olds are eligible for a drawing for full scholarships to public colleges in New York.

Maryland is putting aside $2 million in “VaxCash” prizes to 41 state residents who have been vaccinated; the final drawing will give the winner $400,000.

The “Take Your Shot, Oregon” campaign automatically gives all state residents who have received at least one dose of vaccine the chance to win a $1-million prize, five $100,000 state college savings plan scholarships, and 36 prizes of $10,000 — one in each county.

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West Virginia is also offering a $100 savings bond to residents age 16 to 35 who get vaccinated.

How states are financing the incentives varies. In Maryland, prizes are being paid for from the lottery’s marketing budget. Oregon’s money is coming from federal COVID-19 economic relief dollars.

“People may say all of this is frivolous. I say anything that ends the pandemic, it’s time for us to pull out now,” Slavitt said. “For those on the fence, find whatever reason you want to get vaccinated.”

Even without sweetening the pot to this point, California has made significant, if uneven, strides in its inoculation campaign.

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Roughly 49.2% of all Californians eligible for the shots — those who are at least 12 years old — are now fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s above the nationwide mark of 47% and ranks 20th out of all states.

Many experts estimate that at least 80% of the population will need to be vaccinated to reach longer-lasting herd immunity, the point at which enough people have been inoculated to protect the larger population against the virus.

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“We urge all Californians to get vaccinated and get in line as soon as you’re ready,” state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said during a recent briefing. “There’s very little wait. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible.”

Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.

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