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Rochester lawmakers want to offer more incentives to the unvaccinated to get a shot

Sep 3, 2021

Credit Max Schulte / WXXI News file photo

An extra $50 in the pocket. The chance to win a laptop or a new car. Gift cards of $75 for school supplies.

These are a few of the incentives state legislators from Rochester hope can spur unvaccinated people to get inoculated, and they have asked Gov. Kathy Hochul for $2 million to fund them.

Vaccine incentives of $50 gift cards have been offered for much of the summer in targeted geographic areas, specifically low-income communities of color and ZIP codes where vaccination rates are low.

But financing for those inducements was provided through private philanthropy administered by the United Way of Greater Rochester, and the money is running out. United Way President Jaime Saunders estimated some $300,000 was put toward the effort — enough for $50 gift cards for 6,000 people.

“The incentives we anticipate, if we’re doing a big push for September, then those will be exhausted,” Saunders said.

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.

President Joseph Biden in July urged state and local governments to draw from federal pandemic relief funds to offer $100 cash to anyone willing to get a shot voluntarily.

New York City implemented that strategy and Mayor Bill de Blasio 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.

“This is working,” de Blasio said. “This is important to people.”

State legislators from Rochester outlined their ideas for funding for incentives in a letter to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in late July — ideas that Cuomo had requested of them. But the governor’s subsequent resignation amid an impeachment inquiry shelved the matter in Albany.

The delegation wrote to Hochul last week hoping she would make good on Cuomo’s pledge to review their ideas and find the money for them.

“We’re not reaching the numbers we need to reach,” Assemblymember Harry Bronson said in an interview. “There are areas in the city as I understand it that are only at 35%” vaccinated.

Bronson said Cuomo had pledged to find the money for Rochester from federal relief funds.

A majority of people eligible for the vaccine in Monroe County have received at least one shot, but some neighborhoods lag far behind.

In particular, the 14614 and 14613 ZIP codes of Rochester, which cover the Maplewood, Edgerton, and Lyell-Otis neighborhoods, and parts of downtown, have a one-dose vaccination rate of 33% and 38%, respectively, according to New York State Department of Health data.

Those neighborhoods have been the recipients of targeted mobile vaccination efforts coordinated by the county and regional health care systems that have offered incentives. This week, mobile clinics visited 19 sites, according to the county.

The incentives they offer, however, have not been well-publicized. That they were being made available was published on flyers and invitations circulated in the neighborhoods, but they were not touted to traditional media outlets.

Wade Norwood.
Credit James Brown / WXXI News file photo

Wade Norwood, the chief executive officer of Common Ground Health and a co-chair of the Finger Lakes COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, said he could not pinpoint how many people who attended vaccine clinics were moved to do so by the promise of incentives.

But, he said, anecdotes suggest that the incentives have helped.

“Because the fact that we concentrated most of the incentives toward the ZIP codes where we needed to drive up uptake, I have no doubt whatsoever that the incentives have worked,” Norwood said.

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said county officials are working with the Finger Lakes COVID-19 Task Force to figure out which incentives worked best, and said using federal money to finance more incentives was an option.

“I would like to see an incentive program continue beyond this month ... but we have to look at what the right one is,” Bello said.

County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, a Democrat who represents the Beechwood area of the city, where the vaccination rate is around 55%, said she was planning a vaccination event in that neighborhood for later in the month and hoped incentives would be made available.

She said she believed the county and health systems running the vaccination efforts need to be more aggressive with incentives — both in terms of their monetary value and marketing.

“This is not a time to slow down any of our efforts, and vaccination incentives are a good tool in the toolbox,” Barnhart said.

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.