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State taking ‘cautious’ approach to financial incentives for COVID-19 vaccine

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in a news conference that his office is reviewing the effectiveness of what some other states are doing to offer incentives to residents who get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Gov. Spencer Cox reacts to a question about his previous prediction of removing masks by the Fourth of July during the last weekly COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 27, 2021. Briefings will now move to every other week.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Utah is holding off on offering any incentives to residents who get vaccinated against COVID-19, Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday, but he’s still keeping an eye on the effectiveness of lotteries and other rewards already being handed out in some states.

“It would be really great if we didn’t need any incentives at all. Hopefully, not dying is a great incentive,” the governor told reporters during a virtual news conference from the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City, his final weekly update on the state’s response to COVID-19.

Earlier this month, Cox said he was working with state lawmakers to come up with an incentive for Utahns to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, expressing enthusiasm for Ohio’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery that just awarded the first of five $1 million prizes to a recently vaccinated 22-year-old.

“There is no amount of money that is too much to help us get an extra 5 or 10% of people vaccinated when you look at the damage that has happened to our economy, to our nation, because of this pandemic,” the governor said on May 13.

But after talking with legislators who “hold the purse strings to the budget,” Cox suggested that may not happen.

The governor said his office agreed to “do a comprehensive review of the efficacy of some of these efforts in other states, and that we would bring those back to the Legislature with some proposals if we feel that those are still necessary,” and see if there’s any interest among lawmakers.

“We’re very fiscally conservative in this state and we should be. We’re cautious with how we spend dollars that are coming to us and so if it’s not necessary, we shouldn’t expend them,” he said. “We do everything cautiously. We get the best evidence and apply it.”

Cox said his review also includes discussions with the White House and with other Republican governors. He had also asked his legal team to look at whether a lottery similar to Ohio’s would be permitted in Utah, which prohibits gambling.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, was noncommittal Thursday.

“We will continue to monitor the situation with the governor to determine if other methods are necessary to increase awareness that COVID-19 vaccines are readily available,” Adams said in a statement. “Vaccines are available today, and I encourage all Utahns to get one.”

Besides Ohio’s new lottery, which also awarded a full-ride college scholarship to a 14-year-old, other states, including New York, Arkansas, Minnesota and Delaware, have incentives ranging from scratch-off state lottery tickets and fishing licenses to state university scholarships.

The U.S. Treasury Department has authorized the use of federal COVID-19 relief funds by states for lotteries, cash payments or other incentives that are “reasonably expected” to increase vaccinations and have a price tag that’s “reasonably proportional” to the public health benefit, USA Today reported Tuesday.

Just over 37% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated against the deadly virus, meaning it’s been at least two weeks since their final dose. Nearly 46% of the state’s population has had at least one dose of vaccine, now available to anyone 12 and older. A total of 2,555,978 vaccine doses have been administered in Utah, a daily increase of 13,508.

Cox pointed out that since the vaccine became available to all Utahns in mid-March, more than 70 people have died in the state from COVID-19, “completely preventable deaths, every single one of those. Conversely, we have not had a single person die in the state of Utah from getting the vaccine.”

However, the governor said one Utahn who was fully vaccinated has died from what’s known as a breakthrough case of the coronavirus.

Utah Department of Health Deputy Director Michelle Hofmann said in addition to the single death, there have been 66 hospitalizations for breakthrough COVID-19 cases. Not everyone who gets the vaccination “has the same robust (immune) response,” she said, particularly the elderly.

Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, speaks during the last weekly COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 27, 2021. Briefings will now move to every other week.
Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, speaks during the last weekly COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 27, 2021. Briefings will now move to every other week.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The state is launching a new social media campaign in the hopes of boosting vaccinations, called “Get the Facts,” Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said. It will feature local doctors and pharmacists answering questions submitted by the public about the shots.

The campaign comes as declining demand for the coronavirus vaccines means the state is moving away from using mass vaccination sites to instead prodding Utahns to visit their own doctors and pharmacists to get the shots.

“These are your doctors and pharmacists. They’ve been vaccinated and they want you to be vaccinated. And they want you to have the facts, accurate facts, about the vaccine” Henderson said. She warned there is still “risk and danger” for those who have not gotten the shots.

The state health department reported on Thursday 309 new COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths from the virus, a Salt Lake County man between 65-84 and a long-term care facility resident, and a Grand County man older than 85 who was hospitalized at the time of his death.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests has dropped to 245 per day, and there were 4,513 Utahns tested for the virus and 9,073 tests conducted since Wednesday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 3.9% when all results are included and 6.7% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

Currently, 147 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah.

Thursday’s news conference by the governor marked the final weekly update on the virus. Going forward, he said the news conferences will be held every other week, calling the move not only “good news,” but also “kind of a relief, I think, to all of us, and I think symbolic that we’re able to slow these things down a little bit.”