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Rochester groups entice unvaccinated people with $100 to get the shot

Max Schulte

In an attempt to persuade thousands of unvaccinated people in the Rochester area to get inoculated against COVID-19, county health officials and philanthropic leaders are offering their largest incentive to date — $100 gift cards.

Now through the end of the month, people who get their first dose of the vaccine at specified clinics will receive the money, which is being funded by a group of philanthropic organizations led by the United Way of Greater Rochester.

Those groups — namely ESL Federal Credit Union, Wegmans Food Markets, Paychex, Greater Rochester Health Foundation and the Konar Foundation — were also behind a $1 million push to raise vaccination rates earlier in the summer that resulted in gift cards of $50 being offered as enticements in certain geographic areas, specifically low-income communities of color and ZIP codes where vaccination rates were low.

“Incentives have played a key role in boosting vaccination rates,” Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said in introducing the incentive during his weekly briefing on the pandemic.

The incentive comes two weeks after state lawmakers wrote Gov. Kathy Hochul seeking additional monies to put toward incentives and nearly two months after President Joseph Biden called on state and local governments to use federal pandemic relief funds to offer people $100 to get vaccinated.

Common Ground Health Chief Executive Officer Wade Norwood, who is the co-chair of the Finger Lakes COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, announced this week that at least half of all residents eligible for the vaccine in every ZIP code in Rochester have received at least one shot.

That assertion, however, differs slightly from state Health Department data, which considers only the population age 18 and older and shows a handful of ZIP codes still below the 50-percent vaccination rate. Those ZIP codes — 14605, 14608, 14611, 14613, 14614, 14620, and 14621 — have been heavily targeted by mobile vaccination units and one-on-one outreach programs and have shown steady increases in their rates, however.

Jaime Saunders, CEO of United Way of Greater Rochester, said she believes those collaborative efforts made a significant difference throughout the pandemic.

There are few studies of the effectiveness of lotteries and cash as medical incentives, although anecdotes suggest they could appeal to some people who are reluctant to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

New York City implemented the $100 strategy, and Mayor Bill deBlasio said, in late August, that the city had spent $8 million on 80,000 residents who had taken advantage of the incentive. City officials said the incentives were particularly popular among young people ages 18 to 24 and people of color.

As of Thursday, 76 percent of Monroe County residents eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose.

Bello said that number demonstrates progress, but must continue.

“We can end this pandemic, but we do it by vaccination,” he said.

Includes reporting by David Andreatta.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.