City Moving Toward Cash Vaccination Incentives, Free Rapid Tests
But first the city must figure out how it can purchase the tests.
Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic‘s proposal to distribute 230,000 free at-home COVID-19 tests and launch a new round of cash incentives for vaccine recipients is moving forward, but not without plenty of debate.
“Clearly the demand is there,” said the alderwoman and mayoral candidate to members of the Finance & Personnel Committee. “We know these rapid tests are very helpful. With an effort to keep children in schools and our economy going, this is a great tool.”
Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson agrees, but her department can’t find the tests to buy. Nor can many members of the public. Social media posts frequently describe convenience stores that have them, only to be updated that they’ve run out.
“We have been trying for the last three weeks to find a source so we can buy them,” said Johnson when the Public Safety & Health Committee debated the idea on Jan. 7. “They are just simply not available.”
The 230,000 test figure is intended to provide one test for each Milwaukee household. That distribution method could also pose an issue. The rapid tests being marketed to governments come as 40 tests per kit with one testing reagent; they can’t be individually distributed, Johnson said.
“This is a great strategy, they are just simply not available,” said Johnson.
“Why do we have to wait?” asked Dimitrijevic, who said she put forth the program after seeing a similar effort succeed in Baltimore. “I think our residents deserve the same resources.”
Johnson, and city purchasing director Rhonda Kelsey, said they were unsure how Baltimore and a handful of other cities that have distributed tests purchased the kits.
Dimitrijevic said her legislation is intended remove any legislative hurdles to purchasing and to encourage the Milwaukee Health Department to work faster. “We have to get in this industry and make a difference and disrupt the market a bit and get in the game,” she told the health committee.
But Alderman Michael Murphy is concerned about the cost and timing.
He said he is seeing consensus among public health officials that the Omicron variant will slow down in the coming two weeks. Johnson herself expressed that at the Jan. 7 meeting.
“My guess is there won’t be a need to test if you’ve gotten it or not, because by that time most of America will have gotten it or been exposed to it,” said the finance committee chair.
“I don’t disagree that the tests are important,” said Murphy. “Why would we try to buy them at the peak period when they’re the most expensive?”
Johnson said the cheapest they had seen individual tests for was $6 each, which would cost the city $1.38 million to acquire.
“We have $13 million that was allocated to us from [American Rescue Plan Act] dollars and we are spending it rather quickly and it was intended to last two years,” said the health commissioner.
“I really want to use the funds that are here for an emergency,” said Dimitrijevic. “That $6 sounds wonderful, I hope we can get it. And if we can’t get it, I hope she’ll report back to us.” She said it was cheaper than a widespread shutdown.
Ald. Nik Kovac expressed concern that the legislation, which in its initial form included a 30-day timeline, wasn’t the best way to interact with departments that were already working on the idea.
“You already would if you could, without council action, buy 500,000 [tests]?” he asked Johnson. “Yes,” said the commissioner.
Kovac suggested a communication item was a better tool, as he too was interested in why Baltimore and others could procure tests. Johnson said her department was even speaking directly with manufacturer Abbot Laboratories with no success.
Vaccine Cash Incentives
The push to give away tests wasn’t the only source of debate. The structure of a new cash vaccine incentive was debated at length in both committees.
The wording of Dimitrijevic’s original proposal, drafted by the Legislative Reference Bureau, was to “distribute 1,000 $100 gift cards to any Milwaukee residents who provide proof of having received COVID-19 vaccination booster shots.”
Murphy was the first to note that such language would allow people who already received the booster to claim the reward.
“This whole road of giving people money to get vaccinated is a little odd to me,” he said. He said he didn’t think the cash offer for a booster shot was necessary given that those people had already volunteered to get the first series.
“It is an interesting business to figure out what motivates folks, but I am willing to give anything a try,” said Dimitrijevic.
She attributed the broad offering to a typo, and had it revised to those receiving vaccination from the health department.
“I guess we have a difference of opinion on what is a typo and what are not typos,” said Murphy.
But Johnson was also concerned about what stage of the vaccination process was being targeted.
“I would be much more comfortable with providing $100 to people to get their first dose, those are the people we need to incentivize,” said Johnson.
Dimitirjevic said her read of the data showed that 50% of those receiving a first shot in Milwaukee never progressed to the level of getting a booster shot.
Ald. Milele A. Coggs suggested a compromise: offer it to both first shot and booster recipients. “I just think that’s something we don’t have to split hairs over, we could do both,” she said.
Dimitrijevic accepted the change. The resolution was also updated to remove the Milwaukee Public Library from explicitly having to partner with the health department on the effort, but it maintains the branch libraries as a test kit distribution site.
Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa expressed concern about the nature of the discussion, which spanned multiple meetings and multiple hours. “It sounds like we’re being punitive towards the author of this legislation,” she said. She praised Dimitrijevic for being willing to adapt.
The Finance & Personnel Committee recommended the adoption of Dimitriejvic’s proposal on a 4-1 vote, with only Murphy voting against it.
The full council is slated to consider the proposal on Jan. 18. That same meeting is expected to include a vote on a new citywide mask mandate sponsored by Dimitrijevic.
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Related Legislation: File 211426
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