Kansas college prizes for COVID shots run from gift cards to scholarships, but they might not work

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WICHITA, Kansas — Most universities in Kansas are offering cash or prizes for students and employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — but it’s unclear whether those incentives work.

The hope: Boost vaccinations — particularly among young adults, who are least likely to get the shot — and curb the spread of the highly infectious delta variant.

Yet researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine found that lottery-based incentive programs don’t actually increase vaccination rates. And the Kansas schools have an uneven sense of how many people on their campuses are protected against the killer virus.

Researchers said Ohio’s widely touted “Vax-a-Million” lottery, which offered adults the chance to win $1 million, was not associated with an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations.

Widespread media reports initially suggested that the Ohio vaccine lottery, which also offered the chance for a full-ride college scholarship for children ages 12 to 17, spurred vaccinations by more than 25%. But those reports didn’t account for an expansion of vaccines to 12- to 15-year-olds that happened around the same time.

“Our results suggest that state-based lotteries are of limited value in increasing vaccine uptake,” said Allan J. Walkey, a professor of medicine and author of the study. “The resources devoted to vaccine lotteries may be more successfully invested in programs that target underlying reasons for vaccine hesitancy.”

Even so, over the past few weeks, Kansas colleges and universities have rolled out vaccine incentive programs. Here’s a brief rundown:

University of Kansas — The first 4,000 students who receive their first shot on campus get a $40 gift card to the KU Bookstores. All fully vaccinated students are entered into a raffle for prizes including $5,000 cash, parking permits, tickets to KU football and basketball games and a semester of free tuition.
Kansas State University — Every Friday through Oct. 8, six vaccinated students will win one of two dozen prizes, which include Apple watches, iPads, video game systems, headphones and coffee makers. On Oct. 15, one grand prize winner will win their choice of a Sony PlayStation 5, Macbook Air or $1,000 cash.  
Wichita State University — All students who show proof of vaccination receive $250 and are entered into a drawing for one of 20 scholarships worth $5,000 each. Each day from Aug. 27 to Sept. 3, there’s a drawing for prizes that include laptops, tablets, a coffee maker and air fryer.
Emporia State University — Students who get their COVID-19 vaccine and are enrolled in at least one on-campus course are eligible to win prizes through the university’s #VaxToNormal program. Prizes include scholarships up to $500, bookstore gift certificates and Starbucks gift cards.
Fort Hays State University — All students, faculty and staff who complete a full COVID-19 vaccination by Oct. 8 will get $400. That includes online students who live in Ellis County or an adjacent county.
Pittsburg State University — Students with regular on-campus classes in Pittsburg who provide proof of vaccination by Sept. 17 will receive a $500 scholarship and be entered to win one of two $8,500 grand prizes, equivalent to a semester’s worth of tuition, fees, meals and housing. Full- and part-time employees will get $1,000 if they receive their final shot by Sept. 17.

Some smaller colleges are offering incentives, too.

At Garden City Community College, students and employees who provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 15 will get $500 applied to their accounts or paychecks in November. If every student and staff member got the vaccine, the total payout would be about $500,000, officials said.

Howard Smith, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Pittsburg State, said the goal of vaccine incentive programs is to protect the campus and those who use it regularly.

“The more people on our campus vaccinated, the less likely disruptions will happen to our fall operations,” he said. “Students won’t miss as much class or as many activities, and everyone can have a safer, more productive semester.

Kansas State officials said about 84% of K-State students have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine — well above the 70% needed to achieve herd immunity. But only about half of faculty and staff are fully vaccinated.

“We need to get … the faculty and staff number higher for all of us to be safe, and for the individuals to be safe,” said K-State President Richard Myers during a virtual town hall last week.

Most universities say they’re not sure how many students or employees are vaccinated, but they hope incentive programs could help them get a better gauge on the number. No Kansas colleges are requiring COVID-19 vaccines.

According to data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, about half of the state’s population have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Only about 43% of 18- to 24-year-olds have received at least one dose.

Universities are funding their incentive programs with federal COVID-relief funding designated to help fight the pandemic, as well as through donations from university partners or foundations.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT or email her at perez@kmuw.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

See the latest COVID-19 stats for Lawrence and Douglas County on The Lawrence Times’ stat dashboard at this link.

Find out where you can get the free COVID-19 vaccine at this link.

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