Other states may be offering residents who get vaccinated against COVID-19 an increasingly wide range of incentives that include chances to win $1 million or more in cash, full-ride college scholarships and even customized shotguns and pickup trucks, but not Utah.

“There are some pros and cons to incentives. I think ultimately, we want people to make the decision to vaccinate because it’s the right thing to for them as individuals, as well as for their communities,” said Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

Finding ways to encourage people to get vaccinated is taking on new urgency as President Joe Biden pushes his goal to have 70% of American adults receive at least one dose by the Fourth of July. Less than a quarter of the states have attained that goal, and Utah is among those below the national average for residents receiving COVID-19 vaccines.

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

While Kim said the “added bonus” of the giveaways may be a good way to prod some to get the shots against the deadly virus in the short term, he suggested more practical considerations could be more effective, such as enough time off work to not only be inoculated, but also to recover from any possible side effects.

“That’s not a sexy incentive like a million-dollar lottery or free tuition at a state institution, but I think it’s one of those kind of under the radar policy changes that could really reduce the barriers and get a lot of folks to get vaccinated,” he said.

Lotteries and other state incentives also carry the risk that the public will expect similar rewards going forward.

The New England Journal of Medicine warned recently that “it’s important to consider that booster shots will probably be required down the line. Offering incentives now may set a costly and undesirable precedent, causing people to expect — and wait for — an incentive the next time around.”

Kim said that’s not “a direction we want to go in. But at the same time, we are in the midst of a pandemic. It’s not over yet,” especially with new surges in cases in other parts of the world. “So it is imperative that we can get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.
Gov. Spencer Cox, left, receives his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site run by the Utah County Health Department in Spanish Fork on March 25, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah Legislature nixes incentives

State lawmakers put the brakes on rewarding Utahns who get vaccinated, despite Gov. Spencer Cox’s enthusiasm for the “Vax-a-Million” lottery set up by Ohio officials to award five $1 million prizes to adults, plus full-ride college scholarships to any state university for those 12 to 17 years old.

California recently upped the ante with an even bigger lottery for its vaccinated residents, giving away a total of $15 million to the 10 winners of a mid-June drawing. Other states, including New York, Colorado, Maryland and Oregon, are offering a chance at cash, while West Virginia is also giving away guns and pickup trucks.

Although the Utah Constitution states that lawmakers “shall not authorize any game of chance, lottery or gift enterprise under any pretense or for any purpose,” Cox said last month he wanted “to be very clear this is not that” and that the concept is “something I support.”

However, when the state Legislature passed a massive appropriations bill in a mid-May special session to accept $1.6 billion federal COVID-19 relief funds that included money to boost coronavirus vaccinations, they also made a point of rejecting incentives.

The bill spells out in special intent language that “monies appropriated by the Legislature in this item, or by any other appropriation relating to COVID-19 vaccines, may not be used to provide financial incentives, awards, drawings or prizes, or any similar incentive to anyone for receiving a vaccination.”

Utah House Budget Chairman Brad Last said he was surprised at the governor’s interest in a lottery. Cox said after the special session that incentives being offered by other states are still being reviewed, but acknowledged lawmakers preferred a more “cautious” approach.

“I don’t know what he was thinking,” Last, a Republican from Hurricane, said. Lawmakers in both the GOP-dominated House and Senate, he said, “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.”

The state has already “provided every opportunity” for Utahns to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Last said, adding that although he wishes everyone would get the shots that he described as safe and effective, it comes down to personal choice.

“I mean, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” Last said. “And I don’t think we ought to be paying people to drink. If they feel like they don’t want the vaccine for whatever reason, then that’s their choice. And beyond that, I don’t think we ought to be handing out money to people.”

Republicans don’t believe in “throwing money” at problems, he said, citing concerns about increased unemployment benefits and other coronavirus-related help from Washington. “It 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.’”

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said while incentives may be what’s needed to boost vaccination rates in Utah, they’re not politically feasible. Some, he said, view the giveaways as “incentivizing foot-dragging and rewarding procrastination.”

King said he’d like to see Utah offer a gift card or small check to those who get vaccinated against COVID-19. rather than hold a lottery that “sort of makes the whole immunization and vaccination process a bit of a game show, you know a bit of a carnival. I think there are ways we can accomplish the same thing.”

White House backs ‘anything that ends the pandemic’

Incentives are being encouraged by the Biden administration, which has set a goal of 70% of adult Americans having at least one dose of vaccine by July 4. At least nine states have hit that mark, Vermont, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

The Treasury Department issued new guidance allowing federal coronavirus relief funds to fund “reasonable” vaccine incentives. Last week, White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has “unlocked a secret” that increased vaccination rates 55% among young adults 20 to 49 years old.

“We are nothing if not responsive to good ideas,” Slavitt told reporters at the White House’s COVID-19 response briefing, urging states “to use their creativity to draw attention to vaccines and to get their states and the country back to normal as quickly as possible.”

He said that included “lottery programs for vaccinated individuals — cash or in-kind transfers or other monetary incentives — for individuals to get vaccinated,” and also offered praise for businesses like United Airlines that also are incentivizing the shots.

“So people may say all of this is frivolous,” Slavitt said. “I say: Anything that ends the pandemic, it’s time for us to pull out now.”

How many Utahns are vaccinated against the virus?

Utah’s vaccination rates for COVID-19 are lagging behind much of the rest of the country, According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Friday, more than half — 51.1% — of all Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine, compared to 46.8% of all Utahns.

When it comes to being fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, meaning it’s been at least two weeks since the final dose, the difference between Utah and the United States shrinks slightly, with 38.5% of Utahns reaching the milestone met already by 41.4% of Americans.

Of course, Utah has the nation’s youngest population, with nearly 30% of the state under 18 years old, a number that’s just over 22% nationally. But now, adolescents as young as 12 can be vaccinated, and approval for children as young as 6 could come by this fall, followed by those 2 and older, and eventually, infants 6 months and older.

Vaccinating younger Utahns will be a ‘huge part’ of getting COVID-19 under control, doctor says

Across the United States, just over 60% of those 12 and older have gotten at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine while in Utah, 57.9% of that population has. And nationally, 49% of those eligible for the shots are fully vaccinated, compared to 47.7% in Utah.

So far, Utah is attempting to boost its numbers by shifting doses from mass-vaccination sites, where demand has been steadily dropping, to doctor’s offices, local pharmacies and pop-up clinics, a move intended to make getting the shots more convenient.

“It’s obviously of critical concern to get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can” in order to “stamp out the pandemic,” Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said. “Our motivating factor is not trying to look good in national rankings.”

Hudachko said it’s up to the governor and lawmakers to decide whether the state needs to offer incentives to boost the numbers.

“It’s a policy issue for sure,” he said. “You don’t have to give away a million dollars. That’s not your only opportunity to offer incentives. ... There’s certainly the opportunity for the private sector to come up with incentives of their own.”