Over 4,006,774 readers this year!

Casper City Council gives green light to COVID-19 vaccine incentive program

Casper Fire-EMS PIO Dane Andersen, right, was the first person in Natrona County to be vaccinated with the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, at the Casper-Natrona County Health Department in Casper. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City File)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Casper City Council on Tuesday, September 28 indicated support for the city moving forward with creating a voluntary COVID-19 vaccine incentive program that will aim to encourage city employees and their family members to get vaccinated.

The council voted 6-2 (in an informal vote by show of thumbs) to allow city staff to move forward with implementing the incentive program. Council members Bruce Knell and Lisa Engebretsen voted against. Council member Steve Cathey was absent.

City of Casper employees who have already been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or who get vaccinated by December 31 will be eligible for a payment of $250.

Employees who get a third dose — or booster shot, if that is recommended for them by the U.S. FDA and CDC — will also be eligible for a $50 payment.

Employees whose spouses or dependents get vaccinated between October 1 and December 31 will be paid $100 for each family member that gets vaccinated.

Several council members who supported the vaccine incentive program said that the program itself will not be enough to handle all the impacts that COVID-19 is having on the functions of the city.

When he presented the city council with the proposal to launch the incentive program last week, City Manager Carter Napier told the council that 141 employees, or 16% of the city’s workforce, had been forced to isolate or quarantine since the end of July. He said that 60 of those employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and the city has calculated that 80-90% of those employees had not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Council member Amber Pollock said that she thinks it would be irresponsible for the city council to do nothing given the disruptions that COVID-19 is causing.

“We’re seeing a significant disruption to city business as a result of positive cases and people quarantining,” she said. “And I think that has to be addressed.”

Pollock and fellow Council members Kyle Gamroth and Jai-Ayla Quest all said that they did some research that showed vaccine incentive programs are effective in convincing some people to get vaccinated, though these effects tend to be short-lived.

Pollock said that she thinks the incentive program should be just one piece of a larger strategy to deal with impacts of COVID-19 on city business. She said that she thinks the city should consider re-implementing things like masking policies or other measures any time that COVID-19 is surging.

“For me, there needs to be something more holisitc,” Pollock said.

She said that having a high number of employees out at one time is neither manageable nor sustainable.

Pollock also said that while she would support the incentive program, the city would not see immediate relief after implementing it. Even if unvaccinated employees choose to participate, they will still need to go and get shots and Pollock said that this means the program is “not going to solve our immediate problem, which is that a lot of folks are out right now.”

She said that she thinks the city should be making efforts to provide factual information for employees without any “fluff.” Pollock said employees should be encouraged to talk with their own doctors about COVID-19 and vaccines.

Quest and Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco both said that they agreed the city should think about doing something more than just implementing the vaccine incentive program.

“We have to do more if we are going to get through this surge,” Pacheco said, adding that he thinks the city will be dealing with impacts from COVID-19 for years.

Quest suggested four goals the city should have as it relates to dealing with the COVID-19 situation:

  1. Keeping services functioning
  2. Taking the most cost effective approach
  3. Protecting our healthcare workers
  4. Keeping our people safe and healthy

The goal of the program is to increase the vaccination rate among City of Casper employees to 65%. The city assumes that the current vaccination rate among employees reflects the vaccination rate in Natrona County — around 36%.

Should the program prove successful, the city estimates that its own costs would be around $124,168. CARES Act dollars would be used to cover costs of the program. Those costs assume the city is able to get 65% of employees to participate. The fewer the number of employees that choose to participate, the less the city will need to spend.

Some costs of the program will be reimbursed through health department dollars.

Quest said she doubts the city will end up spending the full amount that it would if the program were to reach the goal of getting 65% of employees vaccinated since some employees likely will not get vaccinated.

She said that whatever costs the city does incur by paying incentives out to employees may actually be less than what the costs that might be seen stemming from people not getting vaccinated.

Quest said that while she acknowledges getting vaccinated is a choice, “it is a fact that that choice affects other people.” She said she thinks people should be thinking about taking care of their neighbors.

Council member Shawn Johnson asked Napier what else the CARES Act funding could go toward if it isn’t used to support the vaccine incentive program.

Napier said it has become his view that CARES Act dollars can be used for anything, regardless of whether it directly relates to COVID-19. However, he said that doesn’t mean he would recommend using CARES Act dollars to fund the city’s normal operations.

Johnson said that his employer “implemented an incentive program and it was fairly effective.” He said that the program was not 100% effective in getting people to consider the vaccines, but that it possibly encouraged some people who were on the fence as to whether to get one.

Earlier in the work session, Council member Bruce Knell had said he was “vehemently against using tax dollars” for the vaccine incentive program.

“I am 100% against using taxpayer dollars to bribe or coerce someone to take a vaccine,” Knell said.

When Johnson spoke, he pushed back against the notion that a voluntary vaccine incentive program is “coercion.” He noted that employees would still have the choice to either get vaccinated or not get vaccinated. Pachecho, Gamroth and Mayor Steve Freel made similar points about the program being voluntary.

Council member Lisa Engebretsen said that while she knows the program is voluntary, she thinks some people might still feel as if they are being forced to get vaccinated. She said she agreed with Knell in opposing using taxpayer dollars for such an incentive program.

City staff summarized how the new program will work in a memo:

The Wyoming Department of Health provides COVID-19 case, variant, death, testing, hospital and vaccine data online. The department also shares information about how the data can be interpreted. COVID-19 safety recommendations are available from the CDC.