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Bridge Michigan
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Michigan spent $5M on vaccine lottery, still well shy of 70 percent goal

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Michigan’s vaccination rate has increased 2.1 percent since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a sweepstakes for those who got the shots.

LANSING — Michigan spent $5 million in federal funding on a COVID-19 vaccination lottery but remains far short of its goal of a 70 percent inoculation rate, according to new data.

As of Tuesday, the last day residents could register for the vaccine lottery, 63.8 percent of Michiganders age 16 and up had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

That is up 2.1 percentage points from the 61.7 percent rate when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the sweepstakes on July 1 with the aim of inoculating more than 700,000 residents to reach 70 percent

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Michigan is still shy of that mark by more than 500,000 shots. 

Health officials say the sweepstakes — capped by a $2 million grand prize that will be announced later this month — may have helped Michigan avoid a more precipitous decline in vaccination rates, which have slowed in most states but are climbing in some regions where COVID-19 is once again surging.

Despite continued hesitancy among some residents, more than 167,000 Michiganders have had their first shot since late June, which experts say is no small feat given entrenched positions among some vaccine holdouts.

"Vaccinations have slowed, for sure, but they're still happening at a slow but steady pace," said Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail. 

"Sometimes it just takes time. You have to allow for people to have their fears and their concerns and to move through that.”

While total vaccinations were down from June, the state said Wednesday that first-doses increased week-over-week throughout July, which began with a very slow holiday weekend.

The 41,150 shots administered last week in Michigan is a significant accomplishment because the remaining unvaccinated residents are "harder and harder to reach than those who made the decision before," said former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan and a member of the Protect Michigan Commission.

"That means that there will be diminishing returns out of all efforts the closer we get to the goal," Calley said.

Republican legislators have questioned the spending by the Democratic administration. 

The lottery money could have been better used to address "the sheer number of children and adults who are struggling right now with mental illness and mental challenges that have been completely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic," said state Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, who chairs the House budget subcommittee on Health and Human Services.

"I felt safe getting my vaccine, but if somebody doesn't feel safe, they should do whatever they can to keep themselves safe," said Whiteford, a former nurse who added she believes in the efficacy of vaccinations and cared for multiple family members who got COVID.

"The whole premise of having a lottery and starting with having a goal of 70 percent was just something that we shouldn't be doing to begin with." 

All told, Michigan spent about $30 in federal funding for each resident who was vaccinated during the MI Shot to Win Sweepstakes. 

While it’s unclear what motivated the residents to get the shots, Vail said that seems like a good deal for a public health campaign.

Ingham has previously offered $25 gift cards to encourage residents to get vaccinated against preventable contagions like Hepatitis A, she said. 

More recently, Oakland County offered a $50 gift card to local residents who got a COVID-19 vaccine. And Detroit offered a $50 prepaid debit card to residents willing to drive their neighbors to a vaccine clinic.

"Incentives and gift cards and things like that are not unique to COVID," said Vail, whose county has inoculated 59 percent of residents ages 12 and above. "We do that in public health — and have done that in public health — for quite a while."

In Genesee County, which includes the city of Flint, roughly 52 percent of residents over the age of 12 have been vaccinated, compared to 60.5 percent statewide. 

It’s not clear if any residents who got inoculated in the last month were motivated by the state lottery, "but we have not seen a significant increase,” Genesee County Deputy Health Officer Kayleigh Blaney told Bridge. 

Local officials have had some success encouraging vaccinations by making doses available at small community events, she said. 

"We can put out ads, we can put out essays, we can put out Facebook posts, but what we've seen is the most effective (strategy) is being out at block parties, being out in the community with a small group and being able to have personalized conversations," Blaney said. 

‘Fear’ is a motivating factor

Eligibility for the Michigan vaccine lottery concluded as the state announced 2,605 new COVID cases between Friday and Monday, continuing a modest uptick that has stoked fears of a third wave because of the Delta variant, a highly transmissible mutation that has wreaked havoc in other parts of the country. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control last week issued new guidance recommending fully vaccinated residents wear masks in counties with “high” or “substantial” transmission risk levels, a recommendation that applied to 33 Michigan counties as of Monday. 

But there are flaws in the federal data that exaggerate the risk in some counties, said Vail, the Ingham County health officer. Her county is at “substantial risk,” according to federal metrics, but only “moderate” risk according to state metrics that she said are more reliable. 

MIchigan is expected to issue new guidance recommending — but not mandating — schools follow CDC guidance by requiring masks indoors. And Wayne State University on Tuesday became the eighth Michigan university to adopt a vaccine mandate for faculty and students who chose to live on campus. 

But Whitmer has so far resisted reinstating stronger state-level health measures like she employed earlier in the pandemic.

Unlike the federal government, Whitmer said last week that Michigan has no plans to mandate vaccines for state employees. 

Health officials say multiple factors are likely at play for the slow uptick in vaccination rates, including political opposition among some Republican voters and hesitancy among African Americans whose forebears were the subject of medical experimentation. 

In July, an average of 5,422 Michiganders a day received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to CDC data. That was down from 8,985 in June, 19,788 in May and 46,513 in April.

Michigan has vaccinated 64.3 percent of all adults over the age of 18, according to the CDC data. That ranks 32nd in the nation. The state vaccinated about 146,000 adults over the past month, which ranks 19th in the country. 

But when controlled for population, Michigan ranks near the bottom for recent vaccine uptake by adults: 45th by percentage change over the past month, and 43rd for the number of new doses administered per 100,000 residents. 

Meanwhile, vaccinations have accelerated in a number of southern and western states that have had COVID-19 rates climb this summer, including Louisiana, Arizona, Nevada, Missouri and Tennessee.

In Louisiana, where officials reported more than 11,000 new cases on Monday and recently reissued a statewide mask mandate, only 53.9 percent of adult residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

That's up from 48.4 percent in June. The vaccination rate in Louisiana — which also utilized a lottery incentive program last month — is climbing at among the fastest paces in the nation.

“Fear” is a powerful motivating factor for vaccinations, but Michigan officials are trying to use incentives and outreach programs to encourage vaccinations without another major surge, said Vail, the Ingham County health officer. 

"You're seeing that certainly in the South, where cases are rising rapidly and hospitalizations are rising rapidly -- that is driving an increase in vaccination rates,” she said. 

"It's unfortunate that that is motivating people, because we had some preventable illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths had we been able to convince those people before they watched a family member with severe COVID."

Creating ‘urgency’

Blaney, the deputy health official in Genesee County, agreed the renewed threat posed by the Delta variant could encourage some otherwise reluctant residents to get vaccinated.

"It's not necessarily fear, but it's the culmination of information," she said. "I think there's still a lot of individuals who are either on the fence or... have one question, and that's what they need answered before they decide."

After an initial rush for COVID-19 vaccinations in Michigan and nationwide, supplies have far outweighed demand in recent months. 

As of Friday, the state health department identified roughly 400,000 doses that were close to expiring without use. 

Most of those — 295,000 doses — were produced by Johnson & Johnson, which researchers say may be less effective against the Delta variant. 

The Whitmer administration did not respond to requests for comment on this article but is expected to participate in a Wednesday morning press conference to discuss the vaccine lottery and announce another round of winners. 

The sweepstakes was among a number of strategies deployed during a "lull in the middle of summer" when traditional immunization rates also slow, Kerry Ebersole Singh, director of the Protect Michigan Commission, said last month as the state announced a $1 million winner.

"This strategy was deployed at a time when we wanted to sustain and help create urgency."

The $5 million incentive program was a small expense compared to the massive costs of developing and promoting a vaccine with the potential to curb the ongoing pandemic, said state Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, who is vice chair of the Senate budget committee and is married to state health director Elizabeth Hertel. 

"I'm willing to try anything reasonable that will help improve those numbers," Hertel told Bridge Michigan. "We are seeing a lot of states that, because of their low vaccination rates, are succumbing to the Delta variant. We certainly have that here, and the best way to fight that is through getting people vaccinated."

 Bridge staff reporter Robin Erb contributed

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