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California to pay $116.5 million in gifts, cash to those who get COVID vaccinations

Gov. Gavin Newsom at Esteban Torres High School in Los Angeles.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, center, shown with Rep. Jimmy Gomez, left, and LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, visit a vaccination site to unveil a $116.5 million COVID-19 vaccine incentive plan, including cash prizes and gift cards at Esteban Torres High School in Los Angeles.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

In the latest and most extraordinary effort yet to boost California’s flagging COVID-19 vaccination rates, state officials on Thursday announced what appears to be the largest inoculation incentive in the nation: the chance for 10 residents to win $1.5 million apiece.

The goal of the multimillion-dollar giveaway is simple: Give residents every possible motivation to finally roll up their sleeves as the state’s vaccine rollout enters its crucial next phase.

Those prizes — along with 30 additional awards of $50,000 each — are open to Californians who have gotten at least one dose. Those who have previously received their shots will be entered into the drawings automatically, and there is no need to register, according to state officials.

“These are real incentives. These are an opportunity to say thank you to those not only seeking to get vaccinated as we move forward, but also those that have been vaccinated since we first availed those opportunities a number of months ago,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday.

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Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer called the milestone “truly thrilling,” but said the county wants to vaccinate even more people before the June 15 reopening.

The grand prize recipients will be chosen June 15, the date the state is set to fully reopen its economy. The $50,000 winners will be selected in two batches, half on June 4 and the rest on June 11.

Should someone under 18 win, the prize will be put in a savings account until they come of age.

Additionally, starting Thursday, the next 2 million people who begin and finish their COVID-19 vaccine series will automatically be eligible for either a $50 prepaid gift card or a $50 grocery card that can be used at supermarkets such as Ralphs, Food 4 Less, Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions, Safeway and Andronico’s.

Prospective winners can decline the award, or they can accept and remain anonymous, though they are permitted to make their award public, Newsom said. All California residents are eligible, regardless of immigration status, with some exceptions, such as people who are incarcerated and some government employees, including workers for public health departments and the California State Lottery.

Carla Mendez, 17, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccination at Esteban Torres High School in Los Angeles.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Officials peg the total size of California’s incentive program, officially dubbed “Vax for the Win,” at $116.5 million.

To date, providers statewide have administered more than 36.2 million COVID-19 vaccines, according to data compiled by The Times.

But despite that overall progress, California’s vaccination pace has slowed. The average number of doses being administered statewide has dropped from a peak of about 400,000 per day to closer to 200,000.

More troubling still is that many recent doses were second shots, Newsom said, which has somewhat masked the erosion in the number of people who are beginning their vaccine regimens.

And with the state now less than three weeks away from its planned reopening, officials say time is of the essence to ensure California is shielded against any potential increases in transmission.

“It’s those first doses, those first shots that are way down, and so you can see that cliff coming in the next week or two,” Newsom said. “And this is what we’re trying to mind and trying to address.”

More than five months into the inoculation campaign, a vast gulf has opened between the most- and least-vaccinated of California’s 58 counties.

The cash for the vaccination incentive program will come from California’s general fund, a Newsom budget spokesman said. State tax revenues are projected to exceed earlier estimates by more than $75 billion by next summer, allowing the governor and lawmakers to fund a variety of programs.

Newsom intends to tap into money set aside for pandemic disaster relief and later replenish that account with a portion of the state’s $27-billion share of federal COVID-19 relief funds recently approved by Congress and President Biden.

Although the $116.5 million pales in comparison to California’s estimated $267.8-billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, it’s still a sizable amount — roughly three times as much as Newsom’s budget proposes to spend on surge capacity for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection during this year’s wildfire season and far more than his budget’s $3-million plan to study the needs of public health departments, even as those local agencies insist their needs are well-known.

The pivot to incentives underscores the shifting vaccination campaign, where demand for doses once far outstripped supply and where now those left in the queue are, for a variety of reasons, less eager about getting their shots.

“If there’s a way to help nudge people who are still just waiting to get vaccinated because it hasn’t been the most convenient time or they haven’t had time to schedule it, we’re hoping that these thank-you gifts remind them how important it is to come in,” said Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

Increasing evidence about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and California’s low case rates convince experts it’s safe to stop wearing masks.

Along with more practical inducements — such as partnering with Uber and Lyft to provide free round-trip rides — the county Department of Public Health has also staged sweepstakes offering season tickets for the Lakers, Kings and Galaxy to encourage adults to get vaccinated.

Ferrer said the hope is that offering additional incentives will accelerate residents’ willingness to get inoculated ahead of June 15, when California will lift coronavirus-related capacity restrictions, rescind physical distancing requirements for attendees, customers and guests at almost all businesses and other institutions, and begin allowing people who are fully vaccinated to go without masks in most situations.

“The biggest gift we all know that we’re giving ourselves and each other is that gift of protection,” Ferrer said during a briefing this week. “So I know the vast majority of people are motivated by that.”

L.A. isn’t alone. In the San Joaquin County city of Lodi, officials said residents who received their first dose on or after May 6 would be eligible for a $25 credit on their utility bill upon completing their inoculation series.

Long Beach is holding daily drawings for those receiving their first doses. Prizes have included Apple AirPods headphones, complimentary hotel stays and Nintendo Switch game consoles.

According to the city, vaccination appointments have doubled since the incentive program began earlier this month.

And in Santa Clara County, officials this month provided special perks for some teens and their families — including the chance to visit a locker room at Levi’s Stadium and $10 gift cards from Starbucks or Chipotle.

It’s not just government agencies that are getting in on the giveaways. The Hollywood Pantages Theatre is offering those who get vaccinated at a June 12 clinic the chance to win tickets to the smash musical “Hamilton.”

Companies have made their own incentives available. United Airlines is offering five grand prizes of one year of free travel to any of the airline’s global destinations for themselves and a companion for people who upload their COVID-19 vaccine card to their frequent flier account.

And starting June 1, CVS is offering customers who either received or plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine a chance to enter a sweepstakes for prizes of tickets to the Super Bowl in Los Angeles, cruises, a vacation to Bermuda, backstage passes to the iHeartRadio Music Festival and five cash prizes of $5,000 for family reunions.

Some of us are hoping that a year of remote work will lead to greater job flexibility. Others can’t wait to get out of the house.

There is some evidence to suggest financial incentives can help the cause.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that about 40% of people who were deciding to “wait and see” before getting the COVID-19 vaccine would be more likely to get the shot if their employer offered a financial incentive of $200.

Newsom also pointed to surveys by UCLA researchers that suggest cash payments would make unvaccinated people more likely to get a shot.

There’s also the example of Ohio, which grabbed headlines with its “Vax-a-Million” lottery program that offers a handful of $1-million prizes and full-ride four-year college scholarships.

There, officials saw a 55% increase in vaccination rates among adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s in the days after announcing the program, said Andy Slavitt, a senior Biden administration advisor on the pandemic.

“We encourage 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 during a briefing Tuesday.

Vaccine lottery programs have also been set up in Maryland and Oregon, and some New York vaccine sites are offering free state lottery scratch-off tickets with a grand prize of $5 million to adults who get their first dose of vaccine, as well as free state park passes.

“People may say all of this is frivolous. I say anything that ends the pandemic, it’s time for us to pull out now,” Slavitt said. “For those on the fence, find whatever reason you want to get vaccinated.”

At this late stage of the pandemic, most Californians have been vaccinated. And yet disparities remain. Door-to-door canvassing is one solution.

Nearly two-thirds of all eligible Californians — those who are at least 12 years old — have received at least one shot to date, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, many experts estimate that at least 80% of the population will need to be vaccinated to reach longer-lasting herd immunity, the point at which enough people have been inoculated to protect the larger population against the virus.

If it takes shelling out money to get to that level of community protection, Newsom said, then so be it.

“This is about as, I think, as wise a use of resources as we can identify in terms of a public health emergency that needs to be tackled head on,” he said. “And we are still in that state of emergency. This disease has not gone away. It’s not taking Memorial Day weekend off.”

Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.


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