DeKalb’s $100 incentive drives more than 1,100 vaccinations in one day

A DeKalb County resident shows off the $100 prepaid debit card he received after he got the COVID-19 vaccine shot during an event at The Gallery at South DeKalb on Saturday, August 13, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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A DeKalb County resident shows off the $100 prepaid debit card he received after he got the COVID-19 vaccine shot during an event at The Gallery at South DeKalb on Saturday, August 13, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

County is only Georgia jurisdiction to embrace large-scale financial incentives

By 8 a.m. Saturday, there were already hundreds of cars lined up in the parking lot of South DeKalb mall. A steady stream of folks who arrived on foot found chairs set up under a tent, sat and waited.

DeKalb County and a host of partners were giving COVID-19 vaccinations. But the real draw might have been the $100 prepaid debit cards handed out to anyone who got a shot.

The turnout was huge, more than even county officials expected. By the time the line was cut off, a total of 1,158 people had been vaccinated.

“Of course everybody’s out here because of the $100,” said Octavia Floyd, a 54-year-old, wheelchair-bound Atlanta resident who took MARTA to the event. “But that’s a good thing, to [incentivize] the folks to come out to save our own lives.”

ExplorePHOTOS: DeKalb's $100 incentive drives COVID vaccinations

While several states and local governments across the country have held lotteries or other giveaways to try and get vaccine numbers up, DeKalb County is the only local government in Georgia to embrace a large-scale effort offering financial incentives to the general public

Nationally, there have been mixed results and plenty of questions about whether such incentives actually work on a significant, sustained basis. DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said he knows using federal stimulus dollars to pay people to take shots isn’t a cure-all for low vaccination rates.

But there was little doubt about its efficacy over the weekend.

Most people that spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before or after receiving shots told similar stories: that they’ve been hesitant to get vaccinated for any number of reasons, but the surging Delta variant has become too frightening too ignore — and that $100 helped get them over the hump.

“It’s a blessing,” said 58-year-old Alton Ellis, who has struggled to find work during the pandemic. “It’s truly a blessing.”

Leading a horse

Saturday marked DeKalb’s first foray into a standalone event with three-figure gift cards. But the county had been building up to it for a few weeks.

Prepaid debit cards worth $50 were offered to folks who got vaccinated at a back-to-school food giveaway in late July. The county said it administered 185 vaccinations that day, marking a nearly 50% increase over the previous month’s incentive-less event.

About 230 people were vaccinated at a subsequent event offering the $50 gift cards.

Some government entities — like the Henry County school district, for instance — have offered incentives for employees who get vaccinated. But very few have offered cash incentives to the general public.

The small DeKalb city of Clarkston has followed the lead, recently allocating $10,000 in federal stimulus funds to give $50 cards to about 200 residents who get shots at city-led vaccine clinics.

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Kerwjuan Bailey (right) receives a $100 prepaid debit card from the DeKalb County BOard of Health's Audrey Moyer (left) after he got the COVID-19 vaccine shot during a vaccination event at The Gallery at South DeKalb in Decatur on Saturday, August 13, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Kerwjuan Bailey (right) receives a $100 prepaid debit card from the DeKalb County BOard of Health's Audrey Moyer (left) after he got the COVID-19 vaccine shot during a vaccination event at The Gallery at South DeKalb in Decatur on Saturday, August 13, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
caption arrowCaption
Kerwjuan Bailey (right) receives a $100 prepaid debit card from the DeKalb County BOard of Health's Audrey Moyer (left) after he got the COVID-19 vaccine shot during a vaccination event at The Gallery at South DeKalb in Decatur on Saturday, August 13, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Lisa Crossman, deputy director of Cobb and Douglas Public Health, said her agency has worked with partners like the Atlanta Braves and Chick-fil-A to “secure items to thank our residents for stepping up to get vaccinated,” and will continue to do so. A spokesman for the Cobb County government said the local commission has not considered offering other incentives but is still working with a consultant to weight the best uses of its federal aid.

The city of Atlanta, Fulton County and Gwinnett County do not currently offer incentives for the general public to get vaccinated.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, meanwhile, has said he’s looking at a variety of options to increase vaccination rates, including incentives, but has not yet outlined any plans. He has ruled out lotteries like those organized in Ohio and at least a dozen other states.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink,” Kemp said late last month, regarding his approach to vaccines. “I mean, that is not the government’s role. Our role is to educate people and to tell them the truth.”

Many Democrats and public health experts have criticized the governor’s approach. In a recent opinion piece published in the AJC, state Sen. Michelle Au, a physician from Johns Creek, wrote that Kemp should be doing more to incentivize vaccines and “try a little harder to meet [unvaccinated Georgians] where they are.”

‘A much more positive outcome’

Dr. Sandra Valenciano, DeKalb’s district health director, said she was thrilled about the turnout Saturday. Hundreds of cars were lined up an hour or two before the event even started; some folks waited up to six hours to get a shot, a county spokesman said.

The incentives were important, no doubt. The days of simply setting up mass vaccination sites and hoping people show up in large numbers are gone.

But Valenciano said education and focused community outreach are also more vital than ever.

“We’re really trying to make data-driven decisions to focus our community events and efforts in those areas where we know we already have poor health outcomes, as well as high COVID-19 cases and low vaccine uptake,” Valenciano said.

Southern DeKalb, where the weekend’s event was held, is one such area. It has been among the hardest hit throughout the pandemic and has seen some of the county’s largest spikes in new cases as the Delta variant surges.

The area’s residents are also predominantly Black, a demographic that has lagged others in getting vaccines.

Those lined up for shots on Saturday were almost exclusively Black. The event was advertised on popular local radio stations, officials said, and Atlanta Hawks stars John Collins and Clint Capela were part of the ads.

Hawks legends Dominique Wilkins and Dikembe Mutombo stopped by during the event.

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NBA legend Dominique Wilkins (left) encourages residents to get vaccinated during an event at The Gallery at South DeKalb on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2021. Wilkins is flanked by DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, DeKalb District Health Director Dr. Sandra Valenciano and former Atlanta Hawk Dikembe Mutombo (rear). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

NBA legend Dominique Wilkins (left) encourages residents to get vaccinated during an event at The Gallery at South DeKalb on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2021. Wilkins is flanked by DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, DeKalb District Health Director Dr. Sandra Valenciano and former Atlanta Hawk Dikembe Mutombo (rear). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
caption arrowCaption
NBA legend Dominique Wilkins (left) encourages residents to get vaccinated during an event at The Gallery at South DeKalb on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2021. Wilkins is flanked by DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, DeKalb District Health Director Dr. Sandra Valenciano and former Atlanta Hawk Dikembe Mutombo (rear). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond admitted Monday that, initially, he’d been worried few people would show up.

Instead, county officials ended up having to run to Walmart to buy 300 more gift cards than what they’d brought.

The county plans to move forward with additional incentivized events and is currently scouting new locations to target Black and Latino populations with low vaccination rates.

Thurmond said he hopes DeKalb’s approach becomes a model for other communities. He’s aware incentives aren’t a panacea, but cites polls that suggest around one-third of unvaccinated people could be swayed by financial incentives.

Get shots in those people’s arms, he said, and vaccination rates could quickly approach 60 or 70%.

“We perfected the message, we changed the messenger, we sought out a more convenient location and provided an incentive,” Thurmond said. “I think it wasn’t just the $100. I know people go there first, but it was all of those combined that resulted in a much more positive outcome.”

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