Exclusive: Why Utah isn’t incentivizing vaccines like other states

At least 23 states have offered some sort of incentive for vaccinations

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) During May's special session, Utah lawmakers blocked the use of federal COVID relief funds to incentivize Utahns to get vaccinated.

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Utah’s vaccination rate against the coronavirus continues to lag while cases rise. But don’t expect the state to start offering cash prizes or other incentives for residents who get vaccinated.

State lawmakers specifically blocked that action during the recent special session.

Tucked into the appropriations bill passed by lawmakers during May’s special session is a provision prohibiting any of the more than $500 billion in federal COVID-19 relief spending to go toward a financial incentive or prizes to encourage Utahns to get vaccinated.

That language was included in the bill with little debate. The only time the issue came up was during the May 17 Executive Appropriations Committee meeting. House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, asked whether any of the $205 million in spending for vaccine distribution could be used to encourage people to get vaccines.

“Are we allocating anything for the inducement for people to get vaccines?” King asked. “There’s been talk about the possibility of a lottery or the possibility of gift cards.”

“There will probably be some intent language that precludes that kind of expenditure,” fiscal analyst Jonathan Ball said. “There’s not much appetite in the Legislature for that.”

At least 23 states have offered some sort of incentive for vaccinations.

There is anecdotal evidence that offering an incentive for vaccinations works. West Virginia is offering a chance to win cash prizes along with special rifles and shotguns for people who get their jabs. Some 70,000 residents registered for tickets for the initial drawing after the announcement. Krispy Kreme says it has given away 1.5 million free doughnuts since it started offering treats for vaccinations.

In Utah, legislative leaders say several members of the House and Senate were uncomfortable with the possibility of using state or federal money to provide prizes or other inducements for residents to get vaccinated. Gambling is illegal in Utah, and many legislators felt this was close enough to a lottery that it could run afoul of the state’s constitution.

Before the Legislature’s move, Gov. Spencer Cox said he was considering some sort of program to encourage vaccinations.

“There’s nothing that says we can’t incentivize people to get vaccinated,” said Cox in mid-May.

Legislative sources tell The Salt Lake Tribune that Cox’s office has continued the conversation, hoping lawmakers will reverse course on the ban, but it’s unlikely.

Utah is one of eight states experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There are hundreds of thousands of Utahns still not vaccinated.

President Joe Biden has set a July 4 goal for having at least 70% of the population with at least one dose of the vaccine. At the current rate of vaccination, Utah won’t reach that milestone until early fall.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 48.8% of Utahns have received at least one dose and 41.2% of residents are fully vaccinated, which is below the national average of 51.4%.

The rise in cases could pose a challenge as the Delta variant of the virus is rapidly becoming the dominant strain in the U.S. It could hit areas with low vaccination rates this fall.

Experts say the Delta variant is possibly four times more contagious than the original virus and appears to cause more severe illness in unvaccinated people.