DANVILLE, Ill. – In the Danville Stadium parking lot on Two-Dollar Tuesday this week, National Guard members filled out brand-new COVID-19 vaccination cards.
In exchange for getting the vaccine, residents received a coupon for a free hotdog and a non-alcoholic drink.
Almost half of all Illinois residents are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But some areas, including Vermilion County, are lagging behind.
As COVID vaccination rates across the country have declined in recent months, some businesses and organizations have begun offering incentives to get more shots into arms. The coupons offered in Danville are just one example of the many vaccine incentives being rolled out across the nation — which range from a free soft drink to millions of dollars.
But some local health officials have doubts that the incentives will work.
In Vermilion County, less than a third of all residents are fully protected against the virus.
Doug Toole, the director of the Vermilion County Health Department, said he wants to see more people vaccinated, but he’s not sure how many people the department can persuade.
“They’re telling us that a 70% vaccination rate is what you need for herd immunity,” Toole says. “We are going to struggle to hit half of that.”
Vaccine hesitancy isn’t unique to COVID-19, Toole says. For years, flu vaccination rates in Vermilion County have lagged behind neighboring counties.
“What we are feeling is that the people who most wanted to [get the COVID vaccine] have been vaccinated,” Toole says.
Instead of relying on incentives to persuade those who are still on the fence, Toole thinks education and outreach about the vaccine will be key to driving the county’s numbers up the most.
In neighboring Champaign County, about 46% of all residents are fully vaccinated. But vaccination rates among Black and Hispanic residents continue to lag behind those of white residents.
At a County Board of Health meeting on June 15, Champaign-Urbana Public Health District administrator Julie Pryde expressed optimism that vaccine incentives created by employers could help increase turnout for the vaccine — and said incentives, though costly, could end up saving businesses money in the long run.
That’s because businesses stand to lose money if they’re forced to close when an employee tests positive — and both the employee and those exposed have to isolate or quarantine, Pryde said.
The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District decided to create a vaccine incentive for its employees after seeing the state of Ohio announce its lottery for vaccinated residents, said Karl Gnadt, the managing director of MTD.
He brought up the idea of doing drawings to drive up vaccination numbers with MTD’s leadership team.
“As soon as I said it, everybody was like, ‘We’ve got to try, right?’” he recalls.
MTD agreed to hold five $5,000 drawings for fully vaccinated employees who wished to enter.
Gnadt said that before MTD announced the drawings, 45% of employees had been vaccinated. Now, almost 60 percent of employees are fully vaccinated.
After seeing the results, Gnadt believes the incentives are worth the extra cost.
“We don’t know who’s vaccinated and not vaccinated with the general public so it is a safety issue for our employees,” Gnadt says. “I’m just trying to get that across to the employee group: That we need as many people vaccinated as possible.”
Vaccine incentives employed at the state level could potentially lead to cost savings for local municipalities by reducing the number of COVID-19 cases that require contact tracing, isolation and other health resources, said Pryde.
“I told the state of Illinois, when Ohio [announced their state lottery], ‘If you did a couple million dollar drawings, it would save money if we could get up to a high level [of vaccination] before fall,’” Pryde said. “It would save everybody money.”
On June 17, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the state would be giving away $10 million in prize money to vaccinated residents, including $7 million in cash prizes for adults and $3 million in scholarships for youth.
Everyone who’s been vaccinated so far gets entered into the drawings, the first of which will be on July 8.
Farrah Anderson and Tristen Kissack are student journalists for Illinois Newsroom. Follow Farrah on Twitter at @farrahsoa and Tristen at @TKissack20.