The city has said the low rate of vaccine acceptance among its more than 600 employees has disrupted the delivery of city services, requiring departments to operate at reduced staffing levels and pressing some employees into unfamiliar roles.
The city hopes the $300 incentive the Hot Springs Board of Directors approved Tuesday night will be the carrot that moves more of its employees to get vaccinated. The Legislature took away the stick, passing a law earlier this year that prohibits the state and local governments from requiring their employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
Police Chief Chris Chapmond told the board many in his department oppose vaccination. He estimated 70% of the department's more than 100 employees are unvaccinated. He said more than 60 infections have been reported in the department since the pandemic began. The reduced staffing levels have increased overtime costs as officers have had to work longer shifts to cover the absences.
"I feel like we've had some of the most hard-line pushback," Chapmond said. "Do I want to see an incentive? Absolutely. If for nothing else for those who went out there and got it done. I'm absolutely all about rewarding them. I can't say that $300, $500 or a $1,000 will push some of the hard-liners to do it."
The incentive is retroactive. The city's general fund balance will pay employees vaccinated before March 3. Its $11.37 million American Rescue Plan Act allocation will pay employees vaccinated March 3 or later. The city said $190,000 would be paid out if all employees participate in the incentive program.
An employee's title or status don't place them beyond the virus' reach, which recently extended into the executive suite of City Hall. City Manager Bill Burrough has been working from home since he tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 30. He attended Tuesday night's meeting remotely and won't return to City Hall until Monday.
"I was double vaccinated," he said Wednesday. "It had been almost six months since I've had the vaccine. Now we're starting to see that those vaccines wane after about six months, so I'm a strong proponent for the booster. I've always been a proponent for the vaccine.
"I can see why this virus is putting people in ICUs and on ventilators and ultimately dying from this virus. It's a nasty virus. I think the only reason I didn't end up in the hospital was the fact that I had the vaccine."
Burrough said he started to feel better after a round of monoclonal antibody therapy. His doctor prescribed the treatment, which comprised one shot in each arm and two in the stomach. The shots were administered at a local pharmacy.
"I had some pretty bad days last week," he said. "I think anybody that comes down with it should seriously consider the monoclonal antibody infusion. I think that's what pulled me out of it."
Burrough said he's "feeling great" and believes his two vaccine shots, COVID infection and antibody infusion have conferred a heightened level of protection.
"It just shows that anybody can get this virus, whether you're vaccinated or not," he said. "I think the difference is the vaccination will keep you out of the hospital."
Mayor Pat McCabe told the board he supported the incentive but was uncertain if it will motivate the holdouts.
"Anybody who lives in our community knows somebody who has contracted COVID," he said. "If you're fortunate, you may not know somebody who died from it, but many of us do know. If that's not an incentive in and of itself, I'm not certain the $300 will.
"To the degree that the $300 will cause people to get vaccinated, that's money well spent. Anything that can help move that needle to increase the level of vaccinations is a good thing."