Life

A Doctor Who Convinced People in a Bar to Get the Vaccine for Free Beer on What They’re Telling Her

She found something different than skepticism.

Friends sit at a table drinking beer on a terrace.
KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/Getty Images

America’s vaccine rollout has slowed since peak demand in April, and despite increased shot eligibility on the horizon, some experts are worried—and ready to get creative. Free donuts and baseball tickets have been floated as incentives to the reluctant or indifferent, and now, so are several $1 million drawings in Ohio. Whatever it takes.

One freebie in particular has been a source of mockery: free beer. Would that really work? Dr. Gale Burstein thinks so. She is the Erie County Health Commissioner, and at a satellite vaccination clinic inside a popular brewery in Buffalo, New York, last weekend, she was one of many around the country administering vaccinations to imbibers herself. In total, they put more shots in arms than any of their other pop-up clinics during the same period. In fact, before they started vaccinating folks at 11 a.m., she told me there was already a line out the door. I called her to explain the program to skeptics and to find out what she’s hearing from people who still haven’t gotten the shot, but might for a free pint. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

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Aymann Ismail: So who said, “Let’s just give them free beer!”

Dr. Gale Burstein: Our county executive Mark Poloncarz developed this idea. It comes from a Buffalo tradition where many times when people go out and drink, they’ll drink a shot of hard liquor and they’ll chase it down with a beer. That’s a common kind of alcohol order. Mark thought of a shot and a chaser vaccine clinic, where if people received a shot of COVID-19 vaccine, they could get a pint of beer as chaser.

Did everyone go, “Oh, yeah, good idea”?  

We were optimistic that offering the vaccine in a familiar environment, and giving them something that they want, in addition to getting protected from COVID-19, would work. People in their 20s and 30s is an age group where we haven’t had as high a penetration for the COVID-19 vaccine, or as high as we would like. Also, that is the age groups where we’re seeing the highest number of new COVID-19 infections now. So we’re just trying to be playful, make it fun for people. We’ve given much of the Erie County population their first dose already. Now it’s time that we be creative to meet people where they are, to entice them and excite them to get a vaccine. We know that many people that age, on a weekend, especially the rare sunny Sunday afternoon in Buffalo in May, go to a brewery to have a beer or wine. We were able to vaccinate almost 150 people that afternoon with COVID-19 vaccine.

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Did you hear people talk about why they hadn’t gotten the shot yet?

I was one of the vaccinators. People told us that they had been thinking about it, but it wasn’t a priority Now we were giving them something that they liked in a place where they like to go. So they thought, “Why not? I’ll do it.” People told me they were excited—that they weren’t planning to get a vaccine but did want one. Or they hadn’t made a solid plan. There were some people who had questions, and I was there to answer those questions. And so this was the tipping point that changed their mind and motivated them to get a vaccine that day. We were also able to get people that work at the restaurant, the kitchen and the brewery, who hadn’t planned on getting vaccinated. We made it easy for them. It just takes a few minutes just to get the vaccine. We watched them for 15 minutes, and then they’re good to go.

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Was anyone still reluctant when you approached them?

There were a few times during the clinic when I took a break from vaccinating, and went around to the different tables in the Brewery and introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Dr. Gale Burstein for the Erie County Health Department. Just wondering if anybody would be interested in getting a free COVID-19 vaccine today and a free pint of beer to ensure you enjoy your afternoon.” And at one table everybody said, “Oh, we’ve all been vaccinated already.” And then one person said, “Well, I haven’t been vaccinated yet.” And I said, “Hey, come on. You could do it right now, and you can have a beer on us.” She said, “I’m not sure.” And everybody else in the table went “Come on, you have to get vaccinated too! Be safe with us!” They kept encouraging her. And, finally, she conceded to peer pressure and followed me over to that portion of the Brewery where we were operating the vaccine clinic. I promised, “I’m the Erie County Health Commissioner and I will vaccinate you myself.” And I did.

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Do you think this is an ideal way to convince someone?

In psychology and behavioral health, we know that we want to give people positive reinforcement for good behavior and negative reinforcement for bad behavior. So here, we’re giving them positive reinforcement. We’re giving them a reward for making a smart choice and doing the right thing. And a pint of beer doesn’t really cost a lot of money. People mostly just need that little extra something for doing something that they may be a little reluctant, because maybe they don’t like needles. We’ll give them a little incentive to come to get vaccinated. I just don’t feel that giving away one beer is coercive.

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Is it possible to get the shot for the wrong reasons?

Well, I can tell you that at the Erie County Health Department, our goal is to get shots in arms. Our goal is to get as many people back to community as possible, so we can open up businesses again, so we can make sure that every child can return to their classrooms, and make sure that every athlete is able to participate in sports. We want to make sure that families can be reunited and friends can feel safe spending time together. Our goal is to return to as much normal as possible.

Do you have any advice for people who want to convince someone in their life who’s hesitant about getting the shot?

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People may have many questions about the vaccine or may feel that it’s something that they want to do and they don’t have any firm plans. When somebody tells me that they haven’t been vaccinated, I ask them, “Why? Do you have any questions or concerns? How can I help you answer them?” And then, lead them to a good source of information, like CDC or the New York State Health Department, or even the Erie County Health Department. If they want to talk to somebody, they should talk to their own healthcare provider. Doctor’s offices are a really credible source of valid information. I mean, we know that a lot of information that’s posted on social media and on blogs and on Facebook may not be accurate and just spreading a lot of false rumors. So it’s important that people have the right information to be able to make an informed choice.

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And if you did get vaccinated, you could say, “Well, I decided to get vaccinated and I’m protected. And I feel it was safe and the right thing for me. And I encourage you to do it too.” And just also remind them there’s starting to be more and more public events where people will have to be able to prove that they’re fully vaccinated, or have to get a test within a certain amount of time before the event. To avoid the hassle, tell them being fully vaccinated is the easiest way to go. And it’s also to protect the people around them that they care about. It’s important to get a vaccine so that people around them will also be safe when they hang out with them.

Have any conciliatory words for people who got their shot and didn’t get a beer out of it?

You don’t have to worry about becoming very ill with COVID-19, and I think that’s priceless.

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