FILE - Missouri Governor Mike Parson

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson ceremonially signs a bill enacting COVID-19 liability protection in Fenton on July 7, 2021.

(The Center Square) – The state of Missouri will unveil an incentive program to promote COVID-19 vaccinations next week, but Gov. Mike Parson didn't say how the program would be funded.

Parson, the former sheriff of Polk County – ranked ninth in a New York Times database of all U.S. counties in cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days with 52 – instead said the best motivator to get vaccinated is personal knowledge of someone suffering from the virus.

“I'm going to tell you from personal experience and living in a community of southwest Missouri, when some of those people in your community start ending up in a hospital, people start, unfortunately, paying a little more attention,” Parson said Wednesday after ceremonially signing a bill to limit COVID-19 liability for businesses, health care and religious organizations. “Or, if somebody gets sick and maybe not [hospitalized] … it’s unfortunate that it’s a little bit of a game changer for some people, but it is."

Parson and his wife, Teresa, both tested positive for COVID-19 last fall. He expressed gratitude for both of them being able to be vaccinated and their current state of health.

Twenty six states, Guam and the Virgin Islands are executing vaccine incentive programs, according to a report by the National Governors AssociationIn California, anyone age 12 or older with at least one dose of the vaccine was eligible for one of 10 cash prizes of $1.5 million. In Massachusetts, fully vaccinated residents age 18 or older have a chance to win one of five $1 million prizes. Alabama’s incentive for those age 16 and older is driving two laps around the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway.

A recent study by the Boston University School of Medicine concluded that giving away millions of federal tax dollars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in college scholarships did nothing to improve Ohio’s COVID-19 vaccination rate.

Parson also questioned incentives and the success of other state’s strategies.

“I'm not a big fan of it, I'll be honest about it,” the governor said. “But whatever we can do to help people get a vaccine… if we can gauge, does (the incentive) work or not? I think you need to be extremely careful when you start rewarding somebody for doing something they should be doing anyhow for public health. And then you've got half the population (vaccinated), what do you do with those people?”

Earlier this month, St. Louis City and County announced incentive programs to encourage vaccinations, especially for those age 12 and older. St. Louis County is using $875,000 in federal COVID-19 recovery funds to provide those vaccinated with grocery and gas cards.

“I think we will look at how to get a lot more people involved,” Parson said. “I'm not interested in doing a $1 million lottery. But we can do something on a smaller scale of maybe $5,000 or $10,000. We're talking about those things right now.”

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) reported 49.5% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. DHSS reports 73% of those between age 64 and 74 are fully vaccinated and 74% of those 75 to 84 received both doses.

Parson praised the percentage of older adults completely vaccinated and said many government and medical leaders predicted vaccine hesitancy. 

“I don’t think this is a rural or an urban problem,” he said. “You can go anywhere in the state and find no shortage of people who are hesitant to take the vaccine. We knew that was going to happen all along. We know a lot of other states are similar to what we are. We've had a spike in southwest Missouri and in the central part of the state. But again, I don't know that we weren’t expecting those things.”

DHSS reports the available vaccine supply allocated by federal partners is now meeting current demand. Vaccinators in Missouri have access to a projected 36,000 doses of Pfizer and 67,000 doses of Moderna each week. DHSS reports an average of 6,186 vaccinations during the last seven days.

“If you go to about any part of the state in Missouri right now – a pharmacy, health center, you name it – vaccines are available,” Parson said. “So people are walking right by it. If there's another step we can do to encourage it, we want to do that. But I think the plain truth is some people are not going to take the vaccine.”

Staff Reporter

Joe Mueller covers Missouri for The Center Square. After seven years of reporting for daily newspapers in Illinois and Missouri, he spent the next 30 years in public relations serving non-profit organizations and as a strategic communications consultant.