To increase the rate of vaccinations, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved giving incentives to citizens.
At Wednesday’s commissioners court meeting, the court authorized for up to $250,000 for gift cards, events and other incentive programs, to increase vaccine participation among Harris County citizens.
The money will come from the county’s Public Improvement Contingency fund.
“We desperately need these people to get vaccinated, particularly the young people,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “I asked you to be as creative as we possibly can because I don’t want to sit here a month from now and see the numbers worsen, or see this pandemic extended, and say ‘If we had just done X, would we have avoided this situation?’”
Vaccine demand has seen a marked decrease in recent weeks. The NRG Park vaccine clinic run jointly between the county and FEMA is administering half of its allotted 6,000 doses every day. And while one third of all Texans 16 and older are vaccinated, Texas Medical Center administrators and commissioners alike worry about the slowing rate of vaccinations.
Commissioners pitched vaccine-promotion concerts, gift cards to local businesses, firework shows and Jose Altuve bobblehead dolls as incentives.
The immediate goal is not to use county coffers to pay for gift cards, said Hidalgo, who suggested the county find corporate partners to offer gift cards as a contribution to the community.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey worried that people may take advantage of direct cash payments or gift cards by returning for multiple shots.
“I do not think giving out gift cards or other pecuniary financial incentives is a good thing,” Ramsey said. “You may have people who get multiple shots so they could get their new gift card, so I have some concerns on that side of the equation.”
Ramsey said he didn’t have a problem with trying to promote vaccinations in the community through other means, such as bobblehead giveaways or veteran-centered events during Memorial Day weekend, complete with a fireworks show.
“If we give them out during a ‘Bobbleheads Weekend,’ we would pretty much max it out,” he said. “We could have a whole initiative around this… ‘What better way to honor our vets than to come get your vaccine.’”
To reach herd immunity, the county has to “get the numbers up,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis. He pointed to other states, like West Virginia, are giving financial incentives, including $100 savings bonds to entice unvaccinated citizens. “I wouldn’t go that high, but I wouldn’t rule out some modest gift card,” Ellis said.
First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said Harris County would need mechanisms in place to control how the funds are dispersed and to verify residents’ vaccination status.
“This is certainly well within the purview of the county to do, and I think there’s ample examples of using public funds in order to create incentives for the public to participate in that has a valid public purpose,” Aiyer said.
Creative ideas are necessary to bring people out to a vaccination site, Hidalgo said. She wants the court to find ways to better facilitate people using the NRG site.
Hidalgo asked commissioners to call on their networks to think of what would appeal to particular communities. She said she is working with local sports teams already.
“Put your thinking caps on and reach out to pursue what ideas any of us have,” she said.
Staff writer Zach Despart contributed to this report.