Free Stuff! Is It Enough, or Ethical, to Get People Vaccinated?

There are questions as to whether offering incentives is good medical policy. And some say there needs to be assurances that incentives would be offered equitably

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With a sharp decline in the number of people seeking a first-time dose of the COVID-19 vaccination, health care officials are looking at incentives to persuade them to come forward to get the shot.

According to Sharp Healthcare, there has been a 50% drop in the number of people seeking first-time doses at their vaccination super centers in San Diego County over the last month.

Across the country, many areas have used creative ways to incentivize getting a vaccine. Some offers include free beer, doughnuts, shopping discounts, and savings bonds. NASCAR is planning to have a vaccination pop-up site at its weekend event in Darlington, South Carolina.

In San Diego, a UC San Diego Health doctor who has led vaccination efforts in the county likes the idea of incentives.

“I think it’s great. I think incentives really work,” said Shira Abeles, MD.

Dr. Abeles says her colleagues have been brainstorming about ideas to incentivize vaccinations; for example, the possibility of offering mobile sites at local breweries.

But there are questions as to whether offering incentives is good medical policy. And some say there needs to be assurances that incentives would be offered equitably.

“There’s always the line of where is it incentivizing and where is it coercive? So definitely wanting to get nowhere near that, said Abeles. “I think, small treats, that’s how we get kids to go to the dentist. I remember when I would go to the dentist and get a sticker, my kids get a sticker and that’s what you look forward to.”

Dr. Abisola Olulade, MD,  with Sharp Healthcare says it comes down to equity and whether you can incentivize people equitably. She also wonders if it’s the correct thing to do from a policy standpoint.

“Are we creating a situation where people won’t get shots unless there’s an incentive,” said Dr. Olulade.

“The important think is to focus on making it easy to get a vaccine. Make it as easy as possible for everyone,” she said.

And, then there’s the question as to whether incentives will even work.

“If you’re really wanting some free beer and donuts, yeah they’ll take it. But personally, for me, it’s not enough for me to change my mind,” said Alexis Sports, 22, a student who has not gotten vaccinated.

“I think for our younger generation, the people that I’ve seen, it’ll work,” said Trinity Taylor, 20.

COVID-19 Vaccination in Your State and County

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports daily numbers on the percent of people fully vaccinated based on a person's county of residence.

Source: The The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Note: The CDC did not release any information for Texas, Hawaii, New Mexico and some counties.
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Meanwhile, others have different opinions on whether offering incentives is a good idea.

“I think if that gets somebody off the couch, fun. Do it. I think that people should have a big vaccine party, and have all their friends and family and have the best time they can with it because we’re saving our own lives,” said Colleen Irwin, a nurse practitioner from San Francisco.

But some, like Bill Jenkins, disagrees that incentives should be necessary to get people vaccinated.

“Having to bribe somebody to take a vaccine is somewhat childish," Jenkins said. "Look at this as an adult, a responsible adult, if you want to protect the people around you and your loved ones."

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