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A Utah ‘vaccine lottery’ is out, but state giveaways for getting COVID-19 shots are still being discussed

Vials of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines sit on a table.
Vials of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines sit on a table at the Mountain America Exposition Center in Sandy on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. A Utah lottery offering prizes to those who get vaccinated against COVID-19 appears to be off the table, but talks between Gov. Spencer Cox and legislative leaders about the state providing other incentives such as giveaways or discounts, are continuing.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A Utah lottery offering prizes to those who get vaccinated against COVID-19 appears to be off the table, but talks between Gov. Spencer Cox and legislative leaders about the state providing other incentives, such as giveaways or discounts, are continuing.

“I do think that we ought to find a way to encourage people to get vaccinated, so we’re having those discussions,” Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told the Deseret News. He said there’s concern the state now has “more vaccines than we have appointments. We have the ability to vaccinate people that aren’t coming.”

But Adams said he prefers the state allocate money toward a public service campaign rather than any incentives.

“We can do a better job at educating the younger population of the risk that they might have,” he said, noting that with nearly 90% of Utahns 65 and older having received at least one dose of vaccine, the coronavirus is beginning to take an increased toll on other age groups.

Wednesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 413 new COVID-19 cases, a sizable uptick, and two additional deaths, both women hospitalized at the time of death. One was a Beaver County resident between 25-44 and the other, a Sevier County resident between 45-64.

The Senate leader said he believes the Utah Constitution’s prohibition against lawmakers authorizing “any game of chance, lottery or gift enterprise under any pretense or for any purpose” prevents Utah from joining other states holding drawings for millions of dollars in cash, scholarships and other prizes for residents who get the shots.

“Let me be clear, any type of a lottery type of incentive, an incentive by chance, I think would be off the table,” Adams said. As for the state offering giveaways like gift cards to be vaccinated, he said, “not right now, at least in my mind. We’re talking.”

Those should come from the private sector rather than the state, Adams said, even though the Biden administration has said federal relief funds can be used to pay for such incentives. Utah lawmakers, however, rejected the idea in a special session held in May to accept some $1.6 billion from the federal government.

As reported by the Deseret News at the time, lawmakers spelled out in a massive appropriations bill that the money “may not be used to provide financial incentives, awards, drawings or prizes, or any similar incentive to anyone for receiving a vaccination.”

House Budget Chairman Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said earlier this month that lawmakers added the provision because they “wanted to make sure that it was very clear to the citizens of Utah we were not going to provide them an incentive to get vaccinated.”

Last said the state already has “provided every opportunity” for Utahns who want the shots to get them and that an incentive “just sends the wrong message because next time we have a problem, people are going to say, ‘I’m not going to do that unless they pay me.’”

Cox initially expressed enthusiasm for Ohio’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery that started the trend, saying he didn’t see it as the same as what’s banned by the state constitution, but later acknowledged lawmakers were taking a “cautious” approach to offering incentives.

Last week, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said discussions about incentives were ongoing.

“The Legislature kind of put a bit of a kibosh on the state providing any kind of incentives for people so that’s something that we can’t really do right now. We are talking with legislative leaders about that. We’ve seen those efforts work in other states,” Henderson said.

“But even if we can’t as a state provide those types of incentives and if for some reason, I don’t know, not getting sick with COVID isn’t incentive enough, we ask businesses to provide those incentives to their own employees,” the lieutenant governor said.

The Salt Lake Chamber and state officials reached out this week to 10,000 businesses across the state, urging them to ensure their employees are vaccinated against the deadly virus by providing opportunities and incentives to get the shots.

The state may need to step up, too, Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller said, to reach the goal of 70% of Utah adults receiving at least one dose of vaccine by July 4. Currently, just over 63% of Utahns 16 and older have gotten at least one dose, and 54.7% are fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks since their final dose.

“I think there is an opportunity,” Miller said, adding that while he understands the Legislature has said it doesn’t want the state to do that, “I think it’s obvious to everyone the closer we get to 70% and above, the harder it’s going to get.”

Utah has done well in terms of making the vaccine accessible and providing information about it, the chamber leader said, praising the “good partnership” between the state and the business community throughout the pandemic.

“But, as we get closer to that 70%, if we’re not quite there yet and we need an extra push to get across that finish line I hope that the state and Legislature will consider making (available) some taxpayer dollars, some of that funding that they received from the federal government, in a way that we can get across that line,” Miller said

Utah can look to other states for inspiration, he said, although there’s not likely to be any interest in replicating Washington state’s “Joints for Jabs” program allowing state licensed cannabis retailers to provide one cannabis joint to adult consumers who receive a vaccination at an in-store vaccination clinic.

“Whatever it’s going to take to remove those barriers, I think it would be wise not to take anything off the table. Well, except for giving out the free marijuana,” Miller said. “It doesn’t mean we have to do everything at once ... but we may find as we get closer that we’ve got to do more. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that we need to do even more.”

Utah has now administered 2,761,471 total doses of vaccine, a daily increase of 10,463, the state health department reported, Vaccinations against the virus started in the state last December and peaked in early April at nearly 46,000 doses in a single day.

Since Tuesday, 4,615 people were tested for the virus and a total of 8,212 tests were conducted. The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is now 280 per day, and the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 4.9% when all results are included, and 7.5% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

There are 159 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah currently and the death toll has reached 2,324, a total that includes the removal of a previously reported death of a Salt Lake County man older than 85, on May 22.