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Robert Gehrke: The Utah Legislature blocked vaccine incentives. How business can help us close the gap.

With the vaccination rate falling fast and politicians fearing anti-vaxxers, the private sector has shown that incentives work.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Ah, to be back in April — when the temperatures wouldn’t melt your shoes to the pavement and the only thing on fire was the state’s COVID vaccination program.

At our peak, Utah administered more than 45,000 doses in a single day. Now it’s barely smoldering. We will be lucky if we make it to 40,000 doses administered for this entire week.

The goal shared by Gov. Spencer Cox and President Joe Biden of getting 70% of adults at least one shot by July 4 seemed within reach, but it has slipped away. At our current pace of fewer than 1,700 first doses in adults per day, we won’t get there by Independence Day. Or Pioneer Day. Or Labor Day. Maybe by Columbus Day, if things don’t slow down even more.

At the same time, cases are climbing again, up from 200 per day earlier this month to now more than 300. Hospitalizations have increased, and people are still dying — as Cox accurately noted — unnecessarily.

Since March 23, there have been 28,233 total Covid cases, just 3.9% of them among fully vaccinated people. Of the 1,625 hospitalizations, 95.2% of them were unvaccinated. And just 3 of 113 deaths in that span were among people who had been vaccinated.

The vaccines work. But too many people are still skipping them. Others can’t get vaccinated for health reasons or, because of compromised immunity, they may not be as effective. All told, 1.9 million Utahns are still at least partially exposed, even as doctors warn that the new Delta variant spreading through Utah is far more contagious and potentially lethal than any we’ve seen.

If we can get vaccinations humming again, we can stave off most of the worst outcomes.

Research is showing that even small incentives can work. A survey of 10,000 unvaccinated people found a third said a gift card between $25 and $100 would increase their likelihood of getting the shot. They were especially effective among those who remain a little anxious about the effects of the vaccine, rather than hard-core resistant.

Bigger incentives can work even better. Most notably, Ohio saw a 28% increase in its vaccinations once Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced Vax-a-Million, awarding four vaccinated Ohioans $1 million each in weekly drawings.

But the Utah Legislature appears more worried about alienating its anti-vaxxer base than protecting Utah residents. In May, they slapped a rider on a budget bill that said state funds “may not be used to provide financial incentives, awards, drawings or prizes, or any similar incentive to anyone for receiving a vaccination.”

That doesn’t just prohibit an Ohio-style drawing. It prohibits using the money for, say, a $25 tax rebate for everyone vaccinated, or even using the funds to pay for simple things like movie vouchers or gift cards.

So what do they propose instead? I put the question to Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson, and they didn’t have much.

Wilson did not respond. Adams said he is “100% in favor of vaccinations” and supports “implementing informational campaigns to educate more Utahns about the vaccine.”

He contends a lottery would violate Utah’s constitutional ban on gambling — although the statute defines gambling as risking something of value on a game of chance. Indeed the real gamble is not getting vaccinated.

Nonetheless, Adams says that “there are ways to encourage Utahns to receive a vaccine, which we are seeing from the business community and organizations who continue to help get information to the public throughout this pandemic.”

We’ve asked people, informed people, pleaded with people already. Asking again isn’t enough. But we have seen the business community trying to take up some of the slack created by the Legislature unwillingness to lead.

Recently the Salt Lake Chamber and homebuilder Clark Ivory had a press conference promoting their “Bring it Home” campaign, urging businesses to sign up for a mobile clinic to get workers their shots. Ivory, for example, was having a drawing for gift cards for his vaccinated employees.

On the heels of the announcement, the clinics, which normally had just a couple registrations per day, had more than 80 sign up, according to the Chamber’s David Hursey.

The Chamber will also be airing public service announcements promoting vaccinations.

I think there’s room for business to take on an even bigger role.

Had the Jazz been bounced out of the playoffs, how great would it have been to partner with the state to give away playoff tickets to people who get vaccinated? Perhaps Real Salt Lake or Utah or BYU could try something similar.

Maybe we could reach rural residents reluctant to get the shot if a car dealer could contribute a pickup truck or Cabella’s could offer gift cards for a drawing. We could target young people with scholarship giveaways.

States have tried all sort of out-of-the-box ideas. West Virginia is giving away hunting rifles and shotguns. New Jersey is giving away free beer. And Washington State is letting retailers give marijuana products to people who get vaccinated — calling it “Joints For Jabs”.

Look, businesses shouldn’t have to pick up this slack, but a few things seem pretty apparent.

First, incentives work, even fairly small ones.

Second, people aren’t going to be willing to go back to the kind of restrictions we had last year. The only tool is getting as many people vaccinated as we can.

And third, the Legislature is more an obstacle than an asset.

That means if we want to reignite our vaccination program, reach our goals and protect as many Utahns as we can, we need to go outside the box, and we will need help from the private sector.

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