The Pfizer vaccine is administered during a free COVID-19 vaccination event held at New Horizon Church International in partnership with the Mississippi State Department of Health, Wednesday, August 4, 2021 in Jackson. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were available to those 12 years of age and older. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Gulf Coast business and casino leaders are doing what Mississippi government leaders have not: They are working to create a vaccine lottery-like program.

Several prominent Gulf Coast businesspeople are pooling resources in efforts to create a program that would offer vaccinated Mississippians a chance to win cash or other prizes. Mississippi, which ranks 48th for its vaccination rate in the nation, would join dozens of other states in having similar programs.

“We believe time is of the essence,” said Ashley Edwards, the president of the Gulf Coast Business Council. “So we’re quickly trying to do work that should take months and do it in weeks, days.”

Organizers say they are confident they will be able to offer prizes — likely cash — eligible only to vaccinated Mississippians. The program funds are being collected through the nonprofit Gulf Coast Community Foundation. Leaders from Hancock, Harrison and Jackson have been involved so far.

Governors across the nation have created similar incentive programs in efforts to raise vaccination rates. Gov. Asa Hutchinson offered Arkansans a free lottery ticket or $20 voucher from the state Game and Fish Commission to get the shot.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson launched a cash lottery program for vaccinations this week. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan sponsored one earlier this year. New Jersey awarded a dinner at the governor’s mansion as a vaccine raffle prize. West Virginia awarded cash prizes as well as lifetime fishing and hunting licenses. At least a dozen states, including Louisiana, have offered seven-figure prizes.

Meanwhile, Reeves has received criticism for being too hands-off in recent weeks as health care experts plead with residents to get vaccinated.

READ MORE: Hospitals pushed to brink as delta variant hits Mississippi ‘like a tsunami’

LuAnn Pappas, the CEO of the Scarlet Pearl casino resort, is no stranger to taking COVID-19 awareness and incentives into her own hands. As of Wednesday, about 700 of 800 employees at her D’Iberville casino were vaccinated. Pappas offers cash bonuses up to $300 and has on-site vaccine clinics.

Still, she was surprised it was local leaders — not a state-led effort — who reached out to her for help. Pappas said she donated $50,000 to the vaccine lottery program.

“The state did lead in rolling out the vaccination,” Pappas said. “But then we just kind of stalled and we stopped.”

As of Wednesday, Mississippi’s overall vaccination rate was about 35%. But the vaccine rate for south Mississippi — the state’s tourism hub, churning out millions in economic impact every month from both gaming revenue and sales tax — has consistently been below the state average. Only a little over 33% of the three Gulf Coast counties have been fully vaccinated so far, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When I saw the rates, I thought no, no,” said Paige Roberts, the president of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “The Coast leads in so many efforts in Mississippi. We can’t have this… If we can move the needle in the three coastal counties, we are then helping the state move the needle.”

When Pappas first required vaccinations of her salaried staff, she made more than 50 phone calls to employees who were against the vaccine. Out of all her supervisors, vice presidents and other professional staff members, only two have not been vaccinated yet. 

Soon, she will require hourly staff to be vaccinated, as well. She said she has seen in her own employees what creativity and persistence, as well as compassion and patience, can accomplish when tackling vaccine rates.

The Gulf Coast program wouldn’t be the first time private companies offered vaccine incentives to the public during the pandemic. But private companies — such as Kroger or United Airlines — have opened their sweepstakes or freebies to all their customers, reaching across several states if not the whole country. 

The south Mississippi effort is hyper-local and seeking partnerships with state agencies, including the Mississippi State Department of Health. It’s unique compared to similar incentive programs in that it will likely be a partnership between private and public entities. 

Edwards hopes other regions, or even the state, could use whatever the group comes up with as a model.

While the Gulf Coast program organizers’ chief concerns are the health of their community — the health of the local economy is at stake, too.

The Gulf Coast was a bright spot in the state’s pandemic recovery. Over the last several months, Mississippi casinos have continued to break gaming revenue records. Casinos had hit their stride in offering something to do during the pandemic in an environment that made customers feel safe, according to local operators. 

Pappas said she cannot think of a single casino that wouldn’t want to participate in the program once it’s formalized. 

“We are trying to sustain the economic momentum we were experiencing prior to the Delta variant outbreak,” Edwards said. “We’re taking measures today to try to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in this situation again.” 

Pappas said she is tired of seeing Mississippi at the “bottom of the pack” in vaccine rates. She’s scared for the children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated and for the stressed and overworked hospital staff caring for an influx of unvaccinated patients.

“The ripple effect is devastating,” she said.

She hopes the lottery gets everyone’s attention — especially those with the means and influence, like herself, to do something to encourage vaccine use.

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