With interest in COVID-19 vaccination flagging in South Carolina, state health officials are looking for ways to incentivize getting that shot in the arm.

The idea of rewarding residents for getting a jab has taken off across the country in recent weeks, with states like West Virginia offering young people a $100 savings bond to get stuck and Ohio entering vaccine recipients in a $1 million lottery drawing.

“We’re open to almost anything that will encourage folks to get the vaccine and that is legal,” S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Edward Simmer told agency board members Thursday.

For now, however, DHEC is starting small.

The agency is working with the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism on a plan to offer COVID-19 shots at state parks in exchange for free admission.

“That’s not a huge incentive, but it’s something,” Simmer said.

Some state parks already offer free entry, while others charge up to $8 for adults.

DHEC plans to roll out its state park vaccination initiative over Memorial Day weekend, but is still firming up the details, an agency spokeswoman said.

The state health department also is looking at partnering with businesses, including restaurants, to offer discounted items in exchange for getting a shot, but those plans are also in their infancy.

State health officials thus far have shied away from offering strictly monetary incentives to vaccine recipients, as other states and some South Carolina lawmakers have discussed, but cash handouts aren’t necessarily off the table either.

“I think there’s a preference of being a little bit more creative and not just giving people money,” assistant state epidemiologist Jane Kelly said last month. “Right now we’re still formulating plans.”

Using giveaways as incentives to drive vaccine uptake is part of the agency’s larger shift away from holding vaccine-specific events, like the eight-week federally-supported clinic at Columbia Place Mall, in favor of bringing shots directly to people.

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“We want to have a vaccine table where people already are,” Simmer said Thursday. “Whether that’s a state park on a holiday weekend, whether that’s a fair or a festival, we think if you’re walking by and you see the table and we say, ‘Hey, do you want the vaccine?’ That’s our chance to get you.”

As of Thursday, South Carolina ranked 40th in its percentage of vaccinated residents, according to federal data. While toward the bottom nationally in inoculations, the state is actually among the leaders in the Southeast, which has some of the lowest vaccine uptake rates in the country.

Nearly 1.8 million South Carolinians have received at least one vaccine dose (41.8% of those eligible) and more than 1.4 million have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations (33.7% of those eligible), according to DHEC data.

Older residents, who are more susceptible to severe disease if infected, are getting the jab at higher rates than young people. More than three-quarters of South Carolinians 65 and older have been inoculated against the coronavirus, Simmer said Thursday.

The state’s success vaccinating seniors likely has driven the decline in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the past couple months, he said.

However, as total cases have dropped, the proportion of new infections in young people has risen.

Between April 10 and May 9, residents age 21 to 30 accounted for the most coronavirus cases in the state (19.1%), followed closely by those age 11 to 20 (17.9%), according to DHEC data.

The authorization of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in children 12 and older this week will aid the state’s inoculation efforts, but more outreach is necessary to overcome vaccine hesitancy, which Simmer said is largely responsible for the state’s subpar vaccination rate.

“There is still an access issue, to be sure. In some of our communities, especially our rural areas,” he said. “But I think hesitancy is becoming a bigger issue for us.”

Simmer said the two subgroups with the lowest rate of vaccine uptake are people 18 to 35, especially African Americans, and political conservatives.

Young people aren’t getting COVID-19 shots because they don’t feel like the virus poses much risk to them, the health director said, while conservatives are skeptical of the vaccine in general.

“There’s some natural distrust of government and they see this as a government program,” Simmer said of conservative Republicans, who decline the vaccine at a higher rate than any other demographic subgroup, according to one recent national survey.

DHEC officials have worked to develop vaccine messaging targeted at young people and sought to empower young adult leaders to message their peers about the importance of vaccination, but have not made public any specific plans to sell conservatives on COVID-19 shots.

“We’re working with some things there,” Simmer said Thursday. “Again, working with local community leaders that they will hopefully trust to try to get more vaccine into those folks.”

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