The Dubuque County Board of Health voted 5-0 — with one abstaining — on Wednesday night against proposed $10,000 lottery drawings as incentives for COVID-19 vaccinations, but members stressed the urgency for raising vaccination numbers as the Delta variant surges.
The board had considered a proposal by the Dubuque County COVID-19 Incident Management Team for four lottery drawings of $10,000 each, in two groups, with the goal of incentivizing unvaccinated residents to receive the vaccine.
This proposal was not endorsed by the incident management team, but it was requested by members of the county Board of Supervisors.
Several Board of Health members based their opposition to the idea on the fact that data does not show these sorts of incentives are successful.
“There is a large body of work on vaccination which looked at vaccination incentives as treats — from material things to gift cards and money,” said board member and infectious-disease specialist Dr. Hendrik Schultz. “It never really reached the control level. It is perhaps counterintuitive to say, ‘Let’s not do this.’ But the data does not support this.”
Board member and mental health professional Amy Crow Sunleaf also voiced opposition to the incentives as proposed.
“The research I’ve done also shows that incentives are not effective,” she said.
Significant public opposition also emerged prior to Wednesday’s meeting.
The board’s vote followed its receipt of a petition with more than 200 signatures gathered in less than a week by residents against the incentive proposal. The petition was created by a group of people calling themselves the Dubuque County Patriots.
Despite the lack of support from the Board of Health, the Board of Supervisors is still expected to vote on the lottery proposal. It is unclear when such a vote would take place.
Under the proposal, four awards — split into two separate drawings — would be used to disburse $40,000 in financial awards.
The first drawing with two prizes would be open to all county residents who were fully vaccinated as of a yet-to-be-determined date in the future.
The second drawing with two additional prizes would be held a month or two later and be open to anyone who has become fully vaccinated since the first cutoff date.
Board Chairman Tom Bechen speculated that the county might have reached the number it is going to with vaccinations.
“We may have reached a saturation point, where the people who feel a civic responsibility to get vaccinated are vaccinated,” he said. “I don’t think dangling some sort of incentive in front of them (would be effective).”
But Schultz said the urgency is not just still there for a higher level of vaccinations, but it is increasing due to the growth of the Delta variant in Iowa.
“The Delta variant is taking lead,” he said. “It’s up to 70% from about 2% (of positive cases) in two weeks. Nobody has to die from COVID anymore. We have enough vaccine to vaccinate everybody who wants to be. All the treatments available so far are not major game-changers.”
Schultz said the biggest concern is for the 12-to-29 age group, which has the lowest vaccination rate.
“The urgency lies for me in the fact that we have a population who is not at the highest risk of getting COVID-19 badly and dying but are the ones at the highest risk of spreading,” he said. “It’s about six weeks that we have because in six weeks, school and college begin, and the great mingling will begin again.”
To that end, Schultz recommended that the board discuss bringing vaccines to schools for students as well as parents.
“Either get vaccinated or be randomly tested for COVID when they are not vaccinated,” he said. “This has been practiced in some of the colleges because they could not test hundreds of students every week. You can offer before school starts, in-school vaccination clinics, where not only the students (12 and older) but the parents could receive.”
For such an arrangement to move forward, that type of plan would need to be approved by the area school districts.
As of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, 63.4% of Dubuque County’s population age 12 and older had at least begun the vaccination series. Schultz said the vaccination rate would need to be at least 70% to near herd immunity and will likely need to be much higher due to more variants.