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'I’m here because of the money': Harris County residents turn out for $100 COVID vaccine incentive

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 8/20/2021 By Erica Grieder Commentary

Frank Malone, a 57-year old Houstonian who works at a chemical plant, wasn’t against the idea of getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I had been thinking about getting the vaccine,” Malone said on Thursday afternoon, as he sat on the patio outside Dodo’s Chicken in west Houston, awaiting his first dose. “I was reluctant.”’

His wife had been vaccinated and felt fine afterward, which eased his mind. “But I was still, you know, being stubborn.” He continued to procrastinate even after his employer sent out an email, saying it would expect all workers to be vaccinated. “I didn’t want to do it.”

“Then they came out with the $100,” Malone said, referring to an incentive program that Harris County launched this week to pay folks to get vaccinated. “The $100, it really kind of pushed me. I could use the $100.”

Show me the money — that seemed to be the response of those with vaccine hesitancy who turned up at county vaccination sites in recent days to take up County Judge Lina Hidalogo on her offer of $100 gift cards for those who get their first-time shots.

This isn’t a silver bullet, exactly; there are few silver bullets in life, especially in the face of a pandemic. But thus far, the incentive program seems to be having an impact.

“Oh wow, yeah. OK. It went up pretty considerably,” said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for Hidalgo, after I asked him to check the numbers Thursday morning.

For the three weeks prior to the start of the vaccine incentive, the health department had administered an average of 431 first doses a day. On Tuesday — the first day of the incentive program, which was really more of a half-day due to Hidalgo’s noon announcement — 914 first doses were administered.

“And get this,” Lemaitre said. “On the second day, Harris County Public Health administered 1,596 first doses.”

Come Thursday, an additional 1628 county residents had received their first doses of the vaccine, officials said.

‘I’m here because of the money’

Not everyone was excited about getting their shots. But with the highly transmissible delta variant sweeping across Texas and the county tossing in some coin for good measure, some residents found it an offer they couldn’t turn down.

“I don’t even want to be here!” said Jesse Hernandez, a 25-year old who works as an assistant for several companies, joining the table with Malone on Thursday. “I’m afraid when I get this I’m not going to feel invincible.”


Video: Jump in vaccine demand after Harris County offers $100 incentive (KHOU-TV Houston)

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Still, he said, his aunt called him the day before to say he could get a free shot — and a $100 gift card — at NRG Stadium or any of the other county-run vaccination sites.

“I’m here because of the money,” Hernandez said, wryly, adding that since he got a flat tire on the way to Dodo’s, he won’t really profit from the exchange. Still, he was at peace with his decision; most of his relatives had already been vaccinated, except for his younger brother and sister, who aren’t eligible yet. “At the end of the day, you know, it’s something I had to do. Everybody gotta do it.”

That’s what public health experts and local leaders have been saying for months, and with growing urgency in recent weeks. So on Tuesday, Hidalgo began tapping funds from the federal American Rescue Plan to boost the county’s vaccination rates, which had stalled out with about 57 percent of eligible county residents fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized in Harris County with COVID-19 has soared to levels that were unthinkable weeks ago. On Wednesday, the Texas Medical Center admitted 429 new COVID-19 patients, up from an average of 369 per day last week — and an average of 100 per day just a month ago.

Through the end of August, Hidalgo explained, residents who get their first shot from a Harris County Public Health vaccination site will get a $100 Visa gift card. She has stressed that boosting vaccination rates could reverse the surge by September. Late Friday, the county sent out an emergency text alert warning residents that the “highly contagious Delta COVID-19 variant is spreading rapidly in your area” and reminding them of the $100 offer.

Residents said Harris County’s incentive is well-timed, given the unsettling spread of the delta variant.

“I was never going to take the vaccine,” said Don Hanks, a construction worker from Katy, as he waited outside Dodo’s to be summoned for his appointment.

What changed his mind?

“A hundred dollars,” he said, with a laugh. “But no, actually what changed my mind is it’s starting to get worse. I’m 60 years old.”

‘Breakthrough’ cases cause worry

Over at the Health Museum, another Harris County Public Health vaccination site, Leah Miranda and Cody Greenwood, 33 and 32 respectively, said that their household had recently seen a couple of COVID cases, courtesy of a fully vaccinated roommate who came down with a “breakthrough” case.

“Sinus pressure. Sinus pressure. Bad sinuses. Too much sinus pressure,” said Greenwood, a bike mechanic, recalling the experience.

“I don’t think he’s ever been that sick before,” Miranda said.

She said that she was still somewhat ambivalent about the shot she was about to receive, not so much because of the risk of a sore arm, but because its long-term effects haven’t been studied yet. Still, she was there.

“They’re doing vaccines, they’re giving out gift cards — might as well get vaccinated,” Miranda said. “I guess it’s for the best.”

Greenwood concurred, explaining that he had decided to get vaccinated because he doesn’t want to get COVID again — “and yeah, $100 sounds cool!”

It’s perhaps surprising that many Texans, considering their options in the face of a virus that can lead to hospitalization and death, would be swayed by $100. But of course people are facing hard times after a pandemic that has lasted nearly a year and a half. Many getting their first dose this week were planning to use the money for necessities such as food, flat tires, or gas.

The fact that the incentive is making a difference is auspicious for all of us. If this is the nudge people need to get vaccinated, let’s keep it up.

erica.grieder@chron.com

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