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Will Incentives Close Arlington’s Gap in Vaccination Rates?

Coasters from Arlington County encouraging people to get vaccinated (courtesy Arlington County)

(Updated at 2:20 p.m.) Patrons at nine restaurants in Arlington may have noticed new cocktail napkins and coasters with QR codes floating around last week.

These coasters and napkins are courtesy of Arlington County as part of its vaccination effort, county communications director Bryna Helfer tells ARLnow.

Scanning the code, patrons of Whitlow’s, TTT Restaurant and Ambar in Clarendon, Wilson Hardware, The Lot, O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub, Rebellion on The Pike, Caspi Restaurant and Lounge and Crystal City Sports Pub can schedule a vaccine appointment while sipping their drinks.

“We want to try and do some creative strategies and get a better understanding… of how we can get the remaining people vaccinated,” Helfer said. “Are incentives what will get the remaining people in Arlington across the finish line?”

Across the country, governments and companies are offering prizes to people who get a shot. These bonuses, from the chance to win the lottery to free state park season passes and absolved parking tickets, have generated a lot of attention. The Biden administration is even encouraging states to offer prizes to draw attention to the vaccine.

In neighboring D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser is providing cash incentives to people living in parts of Wards 7 and 8 with lower vaccine rates. Residents who go to certain clinics will receive $51 gift cards and can enter a drawing to win cars, groceries and Metrobus passes.

“We haven’t done those things, but we’re exploring and working to try to understand… what would motivate someone to get the shot,” Helfer said. “Sometimes it’s not incentives — it’s fear of shots or it might be something else.”

Coronavirus cases have dropped significantly in Arlington, to around just one per day. Nearly 60% of all Arlingtonians have at least one vaccine dose, while 52% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to Virginia Dept. of Health data. Compared to its neighbors, Arlington’s rates are higher than the city of Alexandria’s but lower than Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

“We have more of a vaccine uptick than a lot of other places, but that said, we have gaps,” she said. “We’re trying to launch outreach to 21 to 29-year-olds to see what’s holding them back and reaching out to people in the 22204 zip code and the neighborhoods along Columbia Pike.”

If Arlington could include doses administered by the federal government, Helfer estimates the rate of unvaccinated individuals would be closer to 30%, as many federal employees and military service members live in Arlington.

In addition to working with 35 pharmacies and offering daily clinics, the county is working with the Complete Vaccination Committee — a volunteer group established to raise vaccine awareness — and trusted partners, including faith groups, to draw attention to the vaccine and get shots in arms, she said.

Now, the county is leaning on those partners as it prepares to launch new outreach efforts.

This week, the county is planning to meet with nonprofits and Business Improvement Districts to see if it can “piggyback” on events such as outdoor movie screenings to administer more shots, she said. With 30% of the community left to vaccinate, Helfer said the county is entering a new stage of vaccine outreach: “field operations.”

Staff members have gone to diaper distributions and food banks with shots and volunteers have stood at busy corners near neighborhood clinics, telling passers-by that a shot is around the corner, she said.

Helfer noted that another partner, Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, has parked ice cream and food trucks at pop-up clinics near its buildings.

“People like the ice cream trucks,” she said. “It builds energy and attention. Sometimes that’s all people need.”

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