(This version is updated from an earlier version that indicated next week's event was Tuesday. The event is set for Wednesday, Sept. 1.)
Two hundred $50 gift certificates – that’s $10,000 total – to be distributed during a two-hour public COVID-19 vaccination clinic Sept. 1 inside Statesboro City Hall will be just the start of about $50,000 worth of vaccination incentives city officials intend to fund.
Those preloaded BB&T gift cards, as good as cash at many businesses, will go to the first 200 people, 18 years old and up, vaccinated in the free clinic from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. next Wednesday in the ground-floor City Hall lobby at 50 East Main Street. No vaccine will administered that day to youth 17 and younger because the Pfizer vaccine, which is the only one approved for youth ages 12-17, will not be available, said city Public Information Officer Layne Phillips.
Instead, adults will have their choice of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the Moderna vaccine, which requires two doses and for which a second vaccination date will be scheduled later, she said. Licensed practitioners from the Bulloch County Health Department will administer the vaccines.
During a special meeting late Tuesday morning, Statesboro City Council authorized the purchase of the gift cards and further development of a broader plan to reward people for getting vaccinated.
“We’re in a very serious situation, and that’s why we’re here today,” Mayor Jonathan McCollar said as the meeting drew to a close. “Right now the Mayo Clinic is projecting that our community … and that’s Bulloch County … that we’re going to have, by September 4th, 296 new cases per day. When we first started this thing out, having numbers like this we couldn’t even fathom. … But we ended the week with 198, several days with nearly 200 new cases per day.”
He noted, from Tuesday’s report, that East Georgia Regional Medical Center had 60 COVID-19 patients at the time, 18 of them on ventilators.
“Our medical infrastructure is being pushed to the brink,” McCollar said.
Meanwhile, only 28% of Bulloch County residents have been fully vaccinated, while 33% have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the Georgia Department of Public Health’s online dashboard indicated Tuesday. Statewide, the fully vaccinated rate was 42% and the one-dose rate 50%.
Pandemic of unvaxxed
Beyond the $10,000 for gift cards for the in-house clinic, City Manager Charles Penny proposed putting $35,000 into prize drawings to reward citizens who have already gotten vaccinated or do so in the near future. His original recommendation was to open the eligibility for prizes to any Statesboro residents, employees of the city government and members of city employees’ families who have been vaccinated since the vaccines became available and present proof of vaccination.
“Right now what they’re telling us is this pandemic is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Penny said. “Yes, there are breakthrough cases, but in our own hospital we’re at 95% of the people on the COVID ward right now are unvaccinated people. So we need to get people vaccinated, but at the same time we don’t want to just reward people who have waited to get vaccinated.”
For drawings for vaccinated people 18 years old or older, Penny suggested awarding monetary prizes, including twenty $500 prizes, five $1,000 prizes and one $5,000 prize, a total of $20,000 for that part of the program. He also suggested drawings for electronic gear for youth ages 12-17 who are vaccinated, including five laptop computers, five video game consoles, 10 Beats brand headphones, five Nintendo Switches and 10 Apple Air Pods, for an estimated total expense of $15,000 for that element.
The idea of incentives stems in part from President Joe Biden’s suggestion that local governments use federal emergency funding to give $100 to each person who gets vaccinated, Penny said. But if the city did that and everybody in Statesboro got vaccinated, it would cost about $3.2 million. The city would have more than that available from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, but Penny has suggested holding onto that money for longer-term projects such as a housing rehabilitation program.
“So giving everybody $100 is not something that I would recommend doing,” he said. “But we could also use some of those funds and maybe provide some financial benefit, and all people would have to do is simply go online, let us know they’ve been vaccinated, send us a copy of their registration of their vaccination card to be considered for an electronic drawing,” Penny said.
The actual source of funding for the vaccine incentives will be the city’s earlier reimbursement for public safety expenses under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act of 2020, Penny said later.
Prize drawings ahead
The $10,000 in gift cards for next Wednesday’s clinic, the $20,000 monetary drawing for adults, and the estimated $15,000 for prizes for teenagers total $45,000. But that was just an estimate for the youth prizes, and Penny referred to the entire incentive package as costing about $50,000.
Penny also suggested linking the cash prizes to a community goal, such as awarding these when 40% or 50% of Bulloch County residents are fully vaccinated. This is tagged to the county statistic because vaccination rates are reported at the county level without breaking out city numbers.
But during more than an hour of discussion, council members offered differing opinions on whether the incentive prizes should be made available not just to city residents and city employees, but to all Bulloch County residents.
“I’m in favor of extending it to all Bulloch County residents and city employees,” said District 4 Councilman John Riggs. “I think that 50% is a good cutoff, and then we should re-evaluate it, 50% of our citizens being fully vaccinated.”
Details to be decided
The proposal that emerged from Tuesday’s meeting leaves the later prizes limited to Statesboro residents and city employees. But the vaccinations and gift cards Sept. 1 will be for the first 200 adults who come to Statesboro City Hall for the shots, regardless of where they reside.
Some council members wanted, at least at first, to restrict the incentives to people who are newly vaccinated, from the start of the program forward, instead of including those already vaccinated. District 3 Councilwoman Venus Mack was the first to suggest this.
McCollar also suggested a drawing for an additional grand prize, “something beyond” the $5,000 prize, be held when a community vaccination goal is met.
The final motion, made by District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum, seconded by Mack and approved 5-0, called for a “tiered” structure, with prizes to be awarded first to newly vaccinated people, then larger prizes at the end for which anyone in the city who has been vaccinated will be eligible. The motion called on Penny to return to the Sept. 7 council meeting with a detailed plan for the prize drawings.
The motion also approved funding the cash cards for next week.