In the early days of COVID-19 vaccinations, appointments got snatched up within minutes, people were willing to drive hours to get a shot, and there were more people than vaccine. About six months later, nearly everybody who wants the shot has likely had it — or at least plenty of access.

Now the attention is turning to those still unvaccinated, for whatever reason. This summer, Pima County, like many communities around the country, is doing whatever it can to encourage those who still remain unvaccinated to change their minds.

County spokesman Mark Evans said if the vaccination rate doesn’t rise much above 50%, the county will likely remain in the same situation it’s been in for two months, “where there is this persistent low infection rate that doesn’t get worse and doesn’t get better.”

“We’ve been stuck at about 400 infections a week for about nine weeks,” Evans said. “Since there are still about 400,000 unvaccinated people over age 12 in the county, these low rates of COVID-19 infections could go on for months and months if we don’t get more people vaccinated.”

County incentives

Pima County began to offer incentives for vaccinations in late May.

Recently, at a FEMA vaccination POD at the Pima Air and Space Museum, the Pima County Health Department gave out 302 free museum tickets. It worked; the number of people vaccinated was higher than their previous three-day FEMA POD.

On May 29 and 31, the county gave out $2 scratcher tickets donated by the Arizona Lottery to those receiving a vaccine. On May 29, it was 70 lottery tickets at a FEMA Westgate shopping center POD. They saw double the amount of vaccinations that were administered the previous day at that location.

On May 31, they gave out 130 tickets at the PCC Desert Vista Campus FEMA POD. Though this was meant to be a second-dose event, 140 people received first doses. New vaccinations dropped to 30 the next day when no scratcher tickets were offered.

The county partnered with the City of Tucson on Saturday to offer free admission passes to Reid Park Zoo to the first 100 people to get vaccinated at a zoo pop-up site. Casino Del Sol offered $20 gift cards to their restaurants to anyone who received their vaccine at the FEMA POD there from Friday to Sunday.

Evans said the success of their incentives is hard to judge because it’s so new, but anecdotally the increase in vaccinations on days where lottery scratchers were offered was noticeable.

“We have started to offer lottery tickets every day and we will compare new vaccination trends week over week,” he said. “If we see a plateau or an increase, we can call it a success. If the numbers of new vaccinations continues to go down week to week, then it was a noble effort and we’ll try something else.”

The county intends to continue offering incentives through June.

From April to June, Pima County has invested $400,000 in vaccine encouragement measures, including the incentives as well as PSAs, text messages, direct mail, door-to-door outreach and more.

Evans said they have some other incentive ideas, but nothing has been finalized yet. He said they are hopeful Arizona will offer incentives similar to others in the country.

The county is feeling good enough about vaccinations to indicate it could drop mandatory temperature checks and masks by summer’s end at its facilities. Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, speaking on The Buckmaster Show radio program Friday, said he expects the temperature checks to end by mid-July and, if rates drop, masks could go in late summer.

State

The Arizona Department of Health Services is also looking at creative ways to encourage vaccinations.

On Saturday, AZDHS partnered with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Blue Cross Blue Shield for a vaccination event at Chase Field. Those who got vaccinated received a free ticket to a Diamondbacks game and children got to run the bases.

During another recent Saturday vaccination neighborhood canvassing event at Grant Park, AZDHS provided activities and free food.

Spokesman Steve Elliott said they are aware of creative incentives being provided by other states and private organizations, and are exploring their options.

“This challenge calls for a community response and we are grateful to the many partners who have already stepped up,” he said. “The major incentive to getting vaccinated remains protection for yourself, your family and your community. COVID-19 vaccines are safe, widely available, highly effective and free.”

Elliott said the state’s main focus now is ensuring access.

“At a state level, our major focus is removing barriers to vaccination by getting information into areas with low vaccination rates as well as to the general public, connecting people with vaccine providers and pop-up events, and getting more vaccine into doctors’ offices and other neighborhood providers in addition to the hundreds of pharmacies and other providers offering vaccine widely around the state,” he said.

Why not get it?

The county is looking at an online survey of 903 county residents aged 18 and older to see why they have not received the vaccine. The survey was conducted by Nupoint Marketing in late April and May.

More than half said they are not interested in getting a vaccine and 40% said they were interested or “might” get vaccinated.

The highest amount of responses, 58%, said their top reason for not getting the vaccine is it’s not safe. Another 51% said it was the side effects of the vaccine.

“There is a large resource pool of best practices compiled by county health agencies, the CDC and others on effective messaging about safety,” Evans said. “We are liberally borrowing from them to develop our own safety and efficacy messaging to help convince people that the vaccines are safe and that they work. We will start rolling those out next week.”

“Whatever health risk vaccines may carry, it pales considerably to the risk of getting COVID-19,” he said.

Evans said their goal is to get enough people in the county vaccinated that “virus transmission falls to minuscule levels.”

He said they think that could be when 630,000 county residents are fully vaccinated, and they are currently at about 500,000.

“But the 630,000 is not a magic number in which the pandemic will then come to an end in the county; it’s a best guess by the Health Department that if we achieve that many vaccinated residents the rate of transmission should significantly decrease,” he said.

Evans said the ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates are in low- to moderate-income areas.

“The reasons for hesitancy vary and all our data is anecdotal,” he said. “But among the reasons we’re hearing through surveys and at the PODs are access and opportunity, vaccine safety, concerns about lost job time due to side effects and mistaken beliefs that there’s a charge.”

President Joe Biden stated he wants to achieve a 70% national vaccination rate by July 4.

Arizona has administered nearly 6 million doses to 3.35 million people, and 2.84 million of them are fully vaccinated.

Both the state and county are putting more focus on mobile or pop-up sites and reaching underserved areas. Arizona announced they will phase out state-run sites in the next few weeks. Pima County will continue pop-up sites through June, with 46 scheduled this month.

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9728