Praising the success of the Harris County incentive, which provides a $100 gift card to new vaccine participants, Turner announced the plan last week prior to city council approval.
“As of this coming Thursday, once city council votes on the measure on Wednesday, the very next day we’ll be offering $100 as well…to each person who comes to get the vaccine.”
Turner then explained that participants coming in for the second shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines would receive a second gift card of $50.
During Wednesday’s meeting, some council members expressed concern over the plan, and ultimately both at-large Councilmember Mike Knox and District A Councilmember Amy Peck voted against the measure.
Knox called the incentive “bad public policy” that could result in a competition between the city and the county to constantly increase the incentives, but also objected on grounds of fairness to all taxpayers.
“Essentially what we are doing is gifting money to some at the expense of others,” said Knox. “Although it’s laudable in its intent the end result is we are going to give taxpayer money to certain individuals at the expense of other taxpayers who have already had the vaccine and are not eligible to receive this money.”
Calling the plan a “debacle,” Knox said once it was passed by council, he would seek a written legal opinion from the city attorney on how the plan did not constitute a taxpayer-funded gift to some at the expense of others.
Turner agreed with Knox that it was unfair to those who had already been vaccinated, but said the incentives were in everyone’s best interest.
“I’ve got city employees for example who haven’t gotten vaccinated,” said Turner. “And I will tell you, in short order, they will. They will.”
Turner compared the vaccine incentive program to rewards offered to help solve crimes. He had joined Crime Stoppers and others in a press conference earlier in the week to announce a $100,000 reward for information on the shooting death of a New Orleans Police detective in Houston last weekend.
The $3.125 million to cover the incentives comes from the federal American Rescue Plan act and will only give the rewards to the first 20,000 recipients who receive a vaccine from one of eight eligible clinic locations.
Earlier this month, Harris County launched an initiative plan, and on Tuesday of this week commissioner’s court was informed that a California vendor recommended by Los Angeles County and New York would provide the gift cards. Funds totaling $2,310,008 were transmitted to vendors to cover costs.
The county has also contracted to conduct vaccine outreach at a cost of $10.9 million. The contract has sparked controversy since the vendor, Elevate Strategies, LLC, is owned by Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s (D-Pct. 2) former deputy campaign manager, Felicity Pereyra, and is listed as having only one employee.
The Houston Independent School District is also seeking to incentivize vaccinations by offering a $500 stipend and up to 10 days of paid leave to fully vaccinated employees, pending Texas Education Agency approval. Non-vaccinated employees will be required to use their personal leave to isolate if they contract COVID-19.”
As COVID-19 variants have begun to infect residents, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported a rise in “breakthrough” infections in fully vaccinated patients, but says vaccinated individuals are experiencing less severe illness. The federal agency is mulling approval of COVID-19 booster shots in the coming months, but Turner said Houston’s incentive program would not apply to third doses of the vaccines.
Harris County reports that as of Wednesday, August 25, 58 percent of residents over the age of 12 are now fully vaccinated.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.