HAMMOND – Louisiana’s governor dangled lottery tickets. State and local officials tried going door-to-door. Some ran online campaigns aimed at funneling residents towards information from medical experts, hoping to counter speculation and fear over COVID-19 vaccinations that brewed on social media.
None of it seemed to work in Tangipahoa Parish. Vaccinations stagnated even as the more-contagious delta variant spread and cases and hospitalizations soared.
So Hammond's North Oaks Hospital tried something new: Giving people cash to get vaccinated.
Funded by donations from local businesses and government agencies, the hospital is offering $100 cash payments to those who sign up for the two-shot Pfizer vaccination — $50 after their first shot, with another $50 when they return for the second.
So far, hospital staff say the cash inducement is working.
All 500 appointments scheduled for July 31 under the incentives program are full, said North Oaks spokesperson Melanie Zaffuto. The first 400 slots were snatched up three days after online sign-ups opened on July 19.
When a new round of donations allowed the hospital to open another 100 shots-for-cash appointments on Tuesday, those took just 24 hours to be filled, said Zaffuto.
As coronavirus vaccine interest plummeted in Louisiana, the state saw a spike in the number of wasted shots, with more than 79,000 vaccine dos…
The initiative’s success shows how people still on the fence over whether to get vaccinated — a population scientists are calling “the movable middle” — can be persuaded to seek out vaccines, said Dr. Robert Peltier, North Oaks Hospital’s chief medical officer.
“Clearly there is a portion of the population who delayed vaccination not wanting to be ‘the first in line’ for a new therapy,” Peltier said in an email Wednesday. “As the incidence of COVID in our region dropped and many began to prematurely believe we had entered a post-COVID era, many in this group believed the need to be vaccinated was obsolete. Now that we are in the midst of a fourth wave predominately amongst the unvaccinated, attitudes about vaccinations are changing – albeit slowly.”
Several state governments around the country offered lotteries and jackpot prizes to try luring people to get vaccinated, like Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ “Shot at a Million” vaccine campaign. But few governments have opted to pay residents a flat fee to get a shot. New York City officials on Wednesday announced $100 payments for people who get vaccines at city-run clinics.
North Oaks' cash-for-shots effort gathered steam earlier in July as word spread among a group of local organizations that funded the incentives effort. Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards, the 21st Judicial District, Ponchatoula businessman Thomas Enmon, Anderson Traylor Edwards law firm and several anonymous donors gave a total of $50,000 to the hospital's North Oaks Foundation for the effort, according to Zaffuto.
Enmon, the Gulf Coast CEO for global cleaning services company Jani-King, gave $5,000 to fund 50 appointments, starting the wave of donations. His company later matched that grant, and the other organizations followed, Zaffuto said.
"If this incentive gives unvaccinated people who are on the fence the extra support they need to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, then it’s worth it," Enmon said.
The 500 vaccine series scheduled for Saturday under the campaign would make up about 1.25% of people who have been fully vaccinated in Tangipahoa Parish so far. Just shy of 40,000 of parish residents have been fully inoculated, Louisiana Department of Health Data show.
That translates to just over 30% of parish residents having either both shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or a single shot of the one-time Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Thirty-seven percent of Louisianans overall are fully vaccinated, according to LDH data.
While Tangipahoa officials thought fears over the new delta-driven wave could spur a rise in vaccinations across the parish, the quick sign-ups at North Oaks may be an outlier.
Parish-wide vaccinations have remained stagnant, to the point where “you could trip over a vaccine in Tangipahoa Parish,” said Dawson Primes, the parish’s emergency preparedness director.
North Oaks is continuing to offer other vaccine appointments that don’t fall under the cash-payment program. Whether it’s attributable to extra publicity generated by the incentives or peoples’ fears over delta, those appointments have filled up faster lately, Zaffuto said.
The hospital was running 10 or fewer regularly-scheduled vaccine appointments each day two weeks ago. This week, daily vaccine appointments have hovered around 30, according to Zaffuto.
Editor's note: This file has been updated to correct the initial number of appointments funded by Thomas Enmon's donation to the North Oaks Foundation.