West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) told his staff last week he wanted every idea they had. It didn’t matter how crazy or outside-the-box their proposals were. Justice was growing desperate to find some way of persuading his residents to get the coronavirus vaccine.
It wasn’t until days later that the wildest proposition of all popped into Justice’s head: give young people a $100 savings bond if they get vaccinated.
West Virginia was about to receive federal pandemic funding for testing, protective equipment and economic relief. Why not just take some of that money and offer it directly to people to line up for their shots?
“It would be such a drop in the bucket compared to the ungodly amount of money we’re spending right now,” Justice said in a phone interview Tuesday.
At a meeting Friday with health officials, the governor started furiously jotting down numbers, doing back-of-the-envelope arithmetic on what it would cost to pay $100 to every person between the ages of 16 to 35 — one of the demographics most resistant to vaccination — who gets the shot. The total bill: Roughly $27.5 million.
In the past year alone, Justice said, West Virginia has spent $75 million to test people over and over for the coronavirus.
Justice said he knows there will be some who criticize his plan. “But if I’m able to pull this off and we are able to shut this down for the small price of $27.5 million … I would tell those critics to kiss my butt.”
The $100 proposition announced this week by West Virginia — which is available retroactively to young people who already got the shot — is just one of many incentives now being proposed by states, hospitals, schools and private employers to persuade unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated.
On Monday, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) announced that adults can get a free drink at certain restaurants if they show their vaccination card. The incentive program, which will run for nearly two weeks next month, is a partnership between the state and the Connecticut Restaurant Association and is set to begin May 19, when state’s business restrictions are scheduled to be lifted, state officials said.
Wayne State University in Detroit has told vaccinated students they’ll get $10 added to their student accounts. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro gave students a chance to win money toward textbooks or a grant covering housing costs for an entire academic year. The University of Iowa announced it will offer a gift card for the Iowa City downtown district for those who show their vaccination card.
Krispy Kreme announced to both widespread celebration and criticism that it would give a free doughnut per day to anyone showing proof of a shot, and Budweiser is offering a round to anyone who’s gotten the vaccination.
Nationwide, nearly 142 million Americans have received at least one vaccine shot, according to Washington Post data. But demand is slipping even though every American adult is now eligible to receive a vaccine. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, a majority of unvaccinated Americans said they probably will not get a shot or definitely will not do so. Adults ages 18 to 39 who lean Republican are most reluctant to get a shot, with 55 percent of them saying they definitely or probably will not get vaccinated, compared with 24 percent of U.S. adults overall.
“The fact that we as a country have to beg or pay or bribe people right now to take this lifesaving vaccine, the optics are awful internationally. We look like a nation of adolescents, especially at time when India, Africa and most of the world are clamoring for more vaccine supply,” said Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “These are not bad ideas. We’re struggling and we need innovative ways of reaching the high bar for population immunity.”
First, the United States moved so aggressively to secure its vaccine supply that it left little for other countries and showed little willingness to open up discussion about sharing the recipe for successful vaccines with others. Now huge segments of its population aren’t willing to take it.
“It’s profoundly depressing and makes you question the morality and the standing of our country in the global context,” Hotez said.
The Biden administration and private companies are looking to develop a standard way of handling vaccine credentials, as more businesses have signaled they want to require some kind of proof of vaccination before opening their doors.
In recent days, many GOP state leaders have actively moved against promoting vaccinations through any mandates. Several Republican governors recently signed executive orders intended to curb the use of “vaccine passports,” underscoring the thorny debate that’s emerged over how to deploy credentials that prove people have gotten their shot.
That, in part, is what made the $100-per-shot plan coming from West Virginia’s Republican governor even more surprising. State leaders say the idea was born out of desperation.
In the earliest weeks of the United States’ vaccination campaign, West Virginia earned praise for having the highest rate of doses administered. Then vaccinations there plummeted. In the past month, its seven-day average for vaccinations has fallen by almost 50 percent. This week, it ranked 40th among states in vaccine doses administered per capita.
Meanwhile, West Virginia’s hospitalizations have ticked up, with Tuesday’s seven-day average reaching 291 people, compared with 251 at the same point in March. The seven-day average number of new infections has dropped to 341 on Tuesday, from 405 on March 27.
“We’ve knew at some point in time we were going to hit a wall on vaccinations,” Justice said. Of the 1.47 million West Virginian adults eligible, 48 percent have yet to receive a single shot and young people make up a big chunk of them. “We got kids out there transmitting this thing like crazy because they think they’re invincible.”
The governor said his team thought about giving out pizza and cake or holding weekly drawings for the newly vaccinated with grand prizes. But Justice wanted something with more “pizazz” that would catch the public’s attention and imagination.
He thought about the tradition some parents and grandparents have, giving U.S. Savings Bonds to children on momentous occasions — on their birthday or graduation. He liked the patriotic aspect of buying U.S. bonds that were by nature an investment in the future of the country and giving them to young people as an investment in their future.
“I truly believe that the good ideas that I come up with are coming from the good Lord,” Justice said. “And I’ve said many times, and I’ll take credit for the bad ones, but I do believe this is a good one.”
He announced the plan so quickly Monday that state officials are still working out how the $100 bonds will be disseminated and were reaching out Tuesday to contacts at the U.S. Treasury for help.
Justice said he estimates the program would cost up to $27.5 million if about 72 percent of the state’s 380,000 young people take him up on the offer. And it would require just a sliver of the more than $2 billion in federal aid West Virginia is due to receive.
The unorthodox plan was greeted with praise and some measure of surprise by health experts. “It seems like a relatively low-cost way to tip the scale for people who might be on the fence,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University.
“It seems pretty well designed,” said Alison M. Buttenheim, a behavioral scientist who studies vaccine acceptance at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing. “We as humans are very present-biased creatures, which sometimes makes preventive measures hard to sell because the reward is in the future. What the $100 does is bring the reward into the present.”
Others expressed doubts. Jonah Berger, a marketing expert at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania said financial incentives work when the barrier is financial — such as missing a day at work. But if the main barrier is mistrust, “monetary incentive is not necessarily the solution,” he said.
Iwan Barankay, a business expert also at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has researched using financial incentives to push people into better health and said such financial perks don’t always work.
“The people who actually respond to the incentive are those people who would do it anyway,” he said.
Meanwhile, Justice is already talking to officials in Kentucky who he said told him they’re interested in replicating his $100 savings bond plan. The governor said his health officials are still working through a long list of other unorthodox ideas his staffers came up with: offering the vaccine at county fairs, church parking lots, bars and restaurants; using Meals on Wheels to offer shots alongside dinners; vaccinating every hospital patient upon discharge; going door to door if need be.
Even that carnivallike idea of holding weekly drawings with grand prizes for the vaccinated is still on the table.
“We may very well do that as well,” Justice said. “I’m all about getting something done. What we’re not going to do is sit on our hands and do nothing.”
Dan Keating contributed to this report.