Sangamon County, companies try to boost vaccinations through incentives

Zach Roth
State Journal-Register
Meri Beth Weller, center, a certified nursing assistant working as the dementia unit director at Sunrise Skilled Nursing & Rehab in Virden, celebrates in her new car that she won in a COVID-19 vaccination raffle with Shully Lichtman, the CEO of Crest Healthcare Consulting, at the nursing and rehab facility on Tuesday. The raffle was held to encourage staff to get COVID-19 vaccinations at the facilities that Crest Healthcare Consulting manages. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

With COVID-19 vaccination numbers locally and throughout Illinois flagging as summer approaches, companies and governments are trying to do whatever they can to promote the vaccinations. 

Sunrise Skilled Nursing and Rehab in Virden presented a 2020 Ford Escape Tuesday to a woman who had won a raffle put on by the facility's consultant, Skokie-based Crest Healthcare. Meri Beth Weller, a certified nursing assistant working as the dementia unit director, received the new car compliments of Westown Ford in Jacksonville.

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Weller entered the contest by both being fully vaccinated and entering a written submission to a "MyWhy" email address. She said that the patients were the main reason why she enjoys her job, crediting them to being like family that got her through the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I have never won anything in my life," Weller said. "I'm happy that I had the chance to enter (the contest) and I'm happy that I won it."

Shully Lichtman, Crest's CEO, said that the contest helped to get employees vaccinated against COVID-19, while also celebrating the employees who were vital to the fight against the virus.

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"For whatever reason, people who worked in hospitals were hailed everywhere you went as heroes and received awards and recognition," Lichtman said. "Staff in long-term care facilities, despite working harder and dedicating and sacrificing even more, were left out of the public recognition. (I asked), 'What do I do to recognize the staff while also incentivizing them to get the vaccine?'

"It's all about encouragement, so with the two-fold goal of appreciating our employees and encouraging them to get the vaccine, I just had the idea, 'What about a car?'"

Lichtman said that there were more than 650 unique entrants into the contest, and the draw of getting the car was so popular that people working at other facilities unaffiliated with Crest wanted to enter.

"We posted a video announcing the contest to each facility's Facebook page and we got a couple of messages from people working at other facilities (talking about) how (they) love their job," Lichtman said. "I had to tell them, 'Sorry, but this is for employees of our facilities. Please feel free to go apply there.'"

The giveaway is emblematic of a period in which groups are willing to do anything to get people vaccinated. The state of Illinois has already joined in with legislation providing a free beer to anyone who gets vaccinated over the next month, tickets to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee and even shooting range time at the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in Sparta.

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Now, Sangamon County is jumping on board, announcing Wednesday that it would provide free admission to next week's Sangamon County Fair to those with ID and proof of at least one dose of the vaccine. The fair will also be providing a vaccination clinic each day from 4-7 p.m., compliments of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health.

County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter said the plan would help raise awareness of the shots and celebrate the county's 200th anniversary in a big way at the fair.

"As we all know, we haven’t been able to celebrate much of anything in the traditional way," Van Meter said. "We thought this would be a great way to celebrate our bicentennial and at the same time raise awareness and encourage residents to get their vaccines."

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Gail O'Neill, SCDPH's director, said that the incentive would be one way to reach an audience with the vaccine that they may not have otherwise reached.

"This is a great opportunity to raise awareness and reach an audience that we might not have been able to otherwise," O'Neill said. "We are trying to do everything we can to provide access to the COVID-19 vaccine. We will always remember that we did our best to safely celebrate the county’s bicentennial year during a pandemic."

The steady rate of vaccinations has helped to continue declines in Illinois' case rate. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 408 new cases Wednesday with 23 new deaths. The positivity rate stayed at 1.3%, with the rate as a percentage of tests dropping to 1%, a new low.

Sangamon County reported 11 new cases Wednesday with no additional deaths. Menard County reported no new cases or deaths.

IDPH also announced Wednesday that it would be expanding outreach of COVID testing to the state's elementary schools. The covidSHIELD tests developed by the University of Illinois can now be utilized for little or no cost to elementary schools across the state.

Low-income schools can receive free testing, while others will pay $10  test for the system. IDPH director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said that continued testing, particularly in children, would help to prevent outbreaks that could lead to future surges.

"It is critically important that we identify cases of COVID-19 as quickly as possible to help prevent outbreaks, which could ultimately lead to new surges," Ezike said. "Offering testing in schools, along with vaccination and masking, can help protect students, staff, and teachers when in-person learning resumes."

The state is continuing to see a slight increase in vaccinations, with IDPH reporting that 50,231 vaccinations were provided Wednesday, with the seven-day average moving up to 45,852 per day.

Overall, the state has provided 11,759,105 vaccinations, with 5,639,749 people being fully vaccinated — representing 44.26% of the population. IDPH also reported that 68% of adults had received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 51% of them being fully vaccinated.

Sangamon County reported 704 new vaccinations, with the seven-day average moving up to 566 per day. Overall, the county has provided 180,274 shots, with 88,137 people being fully vaccinated — representing 45.12% of the population.