BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Trying to boost one of the nation's lowest coronavirus vaccination rates, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration has spent $27 million and counting on incentive programs, community door-knocking and advertising in hopes of persuading people to get the shot.
The Louisiana Department of Health's vaccine outreach costs continue to grow weekly and are entirely federally financed. The work began in November 2020, according to the agency, and has reached a spending pace of about $2 million a month on its paid media campaign alone.
The state has sought to chip away at immunization hesitancy with TV, radio and digital advertising, direct mail to homes, telephone town hall meetings, billboards and a hotline to answer vaccine-related questions. Local organizations have been hired to make phone calls, show up at local events and walk neighborhoods promoting the vaccine benefits.
“Strike teams” have brought vaccine doses to churches and community events to make it easier for people to get the shots, hoping to encourage attendance with free food, live entertainment and other activities for families.
The state has tried to entice people with cash awards through a vaccine lottery and through its ongoing “Shot for $100” campaign, in which more than 30,000 people have gotten a $100 Visa cash card for getting vaccinated. That cash card program could be extended past its November expiration date.
In the works are holiday-themed, family-friendly events to try to draw parents and their children for the shots.
The outreach effort has “always been about meeting people where they are, listening and leading with empathy and sharing the facts. But the COVID landscape is an ever-changing one and that’s why you’ve seen us continue to learn, evolve and innovate,” health department spokesperson Aly Neel said in a statement.
The department detailed the $27 million in vaccine outreach spending through mid-November in response to a request from The Associated Press.
The largest amount of money, $9.6 million — more than one-third of the spending, involves the advertising done through the agency's “Bring Back Louisiana” campaign.
More than $7.5 million has been spent on the cash incentive programs, while nearly $3 million covers the contracts with community organizations for their outreach work. About $2 million has been spent to allow people to display their vaccination status through the LA Wallet digital app.
Despite the intense outreach efforts, Louisiana continues to struggle to persuade people to get the coronavirus vaccine and remains among the six states with the lowest immunization rates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 48% of Louisiana’s total residents — more than 2.2 million people — are fully immunized against the COVID-19 coronavirus disease, according to health department data. Resistance to the shots by the unvaccinated seems to be hardening, as those vaccination numbers grow only slightly from week to week.
But Neel said getting that many people vaccinated in less than a year "is real progress. And yet, at the same time, we know it’s not enough. We need many more Louisianans to get the vaccine to protect themselves, their families and our state against a future surge,” she said.
Edwards and his top health adviser, Dr. Joe Kanter, are urging people who aren't yet vaccinated to reconsider their refusal, particularly as people gather for holiday events. They are trying to combat suggestions that the current low rates of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations — after a summer coronavirus spike that was the state's worst — show a lessened need for the immunization.
“We're doing much, much better, but there are states around the country that are being challenged more severely than at any other point ... It can happen again here in Louisiana to some degree,” the Democratic governor said Monday.
People who aren't vaccinated account for nearly 90% of current COVID-19 hospitalizations and more than three-quarters of all COVID-19 deaths over the last week, according to the health department.