While Orange County public health officials are combating vaccine misinformation, some around the county say businesses and government officials should be teaming up and thinking about some type of incentives for people to get the shot.
“I’m thinking about what are some of the incentives that could be at least discussed … shouldn’t we be brainstorming together with some notion of what might incentivize people to get vaccinated?” said Denny Freidenrich, a longtime public relations consultant who worked with OC Supervisors in the 80’s to stop the federal government’s offshore drilling proposal.
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Local public health officials have been struggling to combat misinformation about the shot, overcome vaccine hesitancy and bolster vaccination rates in recent weeks.
In a Wednesday phone interview, Freidenrich said county officials and local business leaders should partner together to offer people incentives to get vaccinated — like tax deferments or discounts at businesses — until herd immunity is reached.
UC Irvine economist Ami Glazer said while incentives are good, the payoff should be nearly immediate to increase the effectiveness.
“It’s better to get a reward immediately upon getting a vaccine. West Virginia is giving a $100 savings bond upon getting vaccinated, but you can’t cash it for several years,” Glazer said in a Thursday phone interview.
Glazer said it could be more than just subsidizing people to get the vaccine at an individual level.
Coronavirus bailout money could be tied to vaccination rates, which would spur county officials to vaccinate even more people, he said.
“Orange County could give greater assistance to cities the higher their vaccination rates are or the federal government could give counties more assistance the greater the vaccine rates are,” Glazer said.
State officials created a de-facto incentive for people to get vaccinated in some of their reopening guidelines surrounding concert halls and sports stadiums.
The venues could allow more people in if organizers can prove everyone is either vaccinated or has tested negative for the virus.
Glazer said businesses could require proof of vaccination in an effort to get more people to get the shot.
“So if you want to go to a sporting event, bars, gyms, you have to show proof that you’re vaccinated. Now that’s not an immediate reward, but if all your friends are going to this event but you can’t because you’re not, now you want to get vaccinated,” Glazer said.
The idea of vaccine documentation — or vaccine passports — has raised concerns among residents.
Many claim the passports would be forced on them, but county officials have repeatedly said the digital documentation is optional and is only available if someone asks for it through the county-run vaccine registration app, Othena.
The documentation service isn’t available yet as supervisors still have to vote on that contract at their next meeting.
Meanwhile, Orange County Board of Supervisors meetings are increasingly becoming a hotbed of coronavirus conspiracy theories during public comment as officials grapple with vaccine hesitancy throughout the county.
During Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, dozens of residents railed against masks, local emergency orders and the vaccine — something that’s become routine.
Many people claim officials will force vaccinations on residents and others said the shots have tracking microchips in them — issues county public health officials have been pushing back against for months.
It all led to Supervisor Don Wagner asking a series of questions to county Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau in an effort to debunk the claims during Tuesday’s meeting.
But a clip of those questions went viral on social media, eventually making its rounds in the national news.
“At the board meeting, all I was doing was walking Dr. Chau through some of those claims. Not because I wondered because they’re true … I know they’re not,” Wagner said at an abrupt Thursday afternoon news conference.
The clip lacked context and didn’t include any portions of the public comment session and also made its rounds on late night talk shows and at least one national news broadcast.
Snopes debunked the claim Wagner seriously believed the conspiracy theories he asked Chau to debunk.
Wagner said officials are bombarded with the claims.
“We have hundreds of people coming to our board meetings. We have thousands of emails and phone calls coming into our offices worried about these issues. It does not make them true. But vaccine hesitancy is out there,” he said.
Chau said he and his staff “have to spend an enormous amount of time explaining, debunking myths … it’s a constant battle.”
One way to address the issue could be a statement and public awareness campaign from political party leaders on both sides of the aisle, said Mike Moodian, a Chapman University professor and local politics expert.
Numerous polls have shown a sharp divide between Democrats and Republicans on vaccines and the pandemic in general.
According to a March survey from Pew Research, 83% of Democrats said they’ll get vaccinated, compared to 56% of Republicans.
“The bottom line is when this pandemic started and became widespread, President Trump downplayed a lot of it and the Republican party, who fell in line, never had a consistent message to deal with this,” Moodian said in a Thursday phone interview.
Moodian said Trump could “absolutely” convince people to get vaccinated if he were to do a public service announcement or similar messaging.
Locally, there’s a similar political division over vaccines and other pandemic measures.
Moodian and his colleague, Fred Smoller, conducted their annual Orange County Community Survey and found 81% of Democrats said they would get vaccinated, compared to 58% of Republicans.
Many people are also concerned about the side effects from the vaccine.
Bernadette Boden-Albala, founding dean of the UCI public health program, said risks associated with the vaccine are far less than the virus itself.
“There’s nothing without some risk, but the risk is so minimal here. I think that is one big source of hesitancy,” Boden-Albala said in a phone interview earlier this month. “I think there’s still huge sources of misinformation that people are spreading about this related to reproduction and sterilization.”
Wagner, along with former Supervisor, now Congresswoman, Michelle Steele — both Republicans — were among the chief local critics of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mask mandate and the state’s reopening system tied to virus metrics like positivity rates.
“We find Orange County tends to have a ‘silent majority,’ where you have people who have questioned the effectiveness of masks and people who have questioned the need for significant restrictions in the pandemic like Don Wagner and Michelle Steel,” Moodian said.
Democratic county Supervisor Katrina Foley said many residents support the public health measures and vaccination efforts, but are reluctant to come to the meetings.
“We get a lot of correspondence from people who don’t feel comfortable coming down to the board meeting. Because people are down here without masks, they are against vaccinations,” Foley said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Newsom, a Democrat, is facing a recall election spearheaded by the GOP for his pandemic shutdowns and a host of other issues.
Pew Research also found 60% of Republicans said the pandemic is a “bigger deal than it really is,” while 12% of Democrats said so.
Overall, a third of respondents said the pandemic has been blown out of proportion.
While officials figure out how to get more people vaccinated, Orange County’s hospitalizations have remained stable.
As of Friday, 113 people were hospitalized, including 22 in intensive care units, according to the OC Health Care Agency.
The virus has now killed 4,957 people — nine times more than the flu kills on a yearly average.
COVID deaths surpassed average yearly cancer deaths in OC.
It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively.
Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
Last year, more than 24,400 OC residents died, according to the latest state health data.
According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio