For a decade, Jennifer Crow has taken care of her elderly parents, who have multiple sclerosis. After her father had a stroke in December, the family got serious in its conversations with a retirement community — and learned that one service it offered was covid-19 vaccination.
"They mentioned it like it was an amenity, like 'We have a swimming pool and a vaccination program,'" said Crow, a librarian in southern Maryland. "It was definitely appealing to me." Vaccines, she felt, would help ease her concerns about whether a congregate living situation would be safe for her parents, and for her to visit them; she has lupus, an autoimmune condition.
As the coronavirus death toll soars and demand for the covid vaccines dwarfs supply, an army of hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and long-term care facilities has been tasked with getting shots into arms. Some are also using that role to attract new business — the latest reminder that health care, even amid a global pandemic, is a commercial endeavor where some see opportunities to be seized.
"Most private sector companies distributing vaccines are motivated by the public health imperative. At some point, their DNA also kicks in," said Roberta Clarke, associate professor emeritus of marketing at Boston University.
Among senior living facilities — which saw their largest drop in occupancy on record last year — some companies are marketing vaccinations to recruit residents. Sarah Ordover, owner of Assisted Living Locators Los Angeles, a referral agency, said many in her area are offering vaccines "as a sweetener" to prospective residents, sometimes if they agree to move in before a scheduled vaccination clinic.
Oakmont Senior Living, a high-end retirement community chain with 34 locations, primarily in California, has advertised "exclusive access" to the vaccines via social media and email. A call to action on social media reads: "Reserve your apartment home now to schedule your Vaccine Clinic appointment!"
Although the vaccine offer was a selling point for Crow, it wasn't for her parents, who have not been concerned about contracting covid and didn't want to forgo their independence, she said. Ultimately, they moved in with her sister, who could arrange home care services.
This marketing approach might sway others. Oakmont Senior Living, based in Irvine, reported 92 move-ins across its communities last month, a 13% increase from January 2020, noting the vaccine is "just one factor among many" in deciding to become a resident.
But some object to facilities using vaccines as a marketing tool. "I think it's unethical," said Dr. Michael Carome, director of health research at consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. While he believes that facilities should provide vaccines to residents, he fears attaching strings to a vaccine could coerce seniors, who are particularly vulnerable and desperate for vaccines, into signing a lease.
Tony Chicotel, staff attorney at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, worries that seniors and their families could make less informed decisions when incentivized to sign by a certain date. "You're thinking, 'I've got to get moved in in the next week or otherwise I don't get this shot. I don't have time to read everything in this 38-page contract,'" he said.
Oakmont Senior Living responded by email: "Potential residents and their families are always provided with the information they need to be confident in a decision to choose Oakmont."
Some people say facilities are simply meeting their demand for covid vaccines. "Who is going to put an elderly person in a place without a vaccine? Congregate living has been a hotbed of the virus," said retired philanthropy consultant Patti Patrizi. She and her son recently chose a retirement community in Los Angeles for her ex-husband for myriad reasons unrelated to the vaccines. However, they accelerated the move by two weeks to coincide with a vaccination clinic.
"It was definitely not a marketing tool to me," said Patrizi. "It was my insistence that he needs it before he can live there."
The concept of using vaccines to market a business isn't new. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic ushered in drugstore flu shots, and pharmacies have since credited flu vaccines with boosting storefront sales and prescriptions. Many offer prospective vaccine recipients coupons, gift cards or rewards points.
A few pharmacies have continued these marketing activities while rolling out covid shots. On its covid vaccine information site, CVS Pharmacy encouraged visitors to sign up for its rewards program to earn credits for vaccinations. Supermarket and pharmacy chain Albertsons and its subsidiaries have a button on their covid vaccine information sites saying, "Transfer your prescription."
But the pandemic isn't business as usual, said Alison Taylor, a business ethics professor at New York University. "This is a public health emergency," she said. Companies distributing covid vaccines should ask themselves "How can we get society to herd immunity faster?" rather than "How many customers can I sign up?" she said.
In an email response, CVS said it had removed the reference to its rewards program from its covid vaccination page. Patients will not earn rewards for receiving a covid shot at its pharmacies, the company said, and its focus remains on administering the vaccines.
Albertsons said via email that its covid vaccine information pages are intended to be a one-stop resource, and information about additional services is at the very bottom of these pages.
Boston University's Clarke doesn't see any harm in these marketing activities. "As long as the patient is free to say 'no, thank you,' and doesn't think they'll be penalized by not getting a vaccine, it's not a problem," she said.
At least one health care provider is offering complimentary services to people eligible for covid vaccines. Membership-based primary care provider One Medical — now inoculating people in several states, including California — offers a free 90-day membership to groups, such as people 75 and older, that a local health department has tasked the company with vaccinating, according to an email from a company spokesperson who noted that vaccine supply and eligibility requirements vary by county.
The company said it offers the membership — which entails online vaccine appointment booking, second dose reminders and on-demand telehealth visits for acute questions — because it believes it can and should do so, especially when many are struggling to access care.
While these may very well be the company's motives, a free trial is also a marketing tactic, said Silicon Valley health technology investor Dr. Bob Kocher. Whether it's Costco or One Medical, any company offering a free sample hopes recipients buy the product, he said.
Offering free trial memberships could pay off for providers like One Medical, he said; local health departments can refer many patients, and converting a portion of vaccine recipients into members could offer a cheaper way for providers to get new patients than finding them on their own.
"Normally, there's no free stuff at a provider, and you have to be sick to try health care. This is a pretty unique circumstance," said Kocher, who doesn't see boosting public health and taking advantage of an uncommon marketing opportunity as mutually exclusive here. "Vaccination is a super valuable way to help people," he said. "A free trial is also a great way to market your service."
One Medical insisted the membership trial is not a marketing ploy, noting that the company is not collecting credit card information during registration or auto-enrolling trial participants into paid memberships. But patients will receive an email notifying them before their trial ends, with an invitation to sign up for membership, said the company.
Health equity advocates say more attention needs to be paid to the people who slip under the radar of marketers — yet are at the highest risk of getting and dying from covid, and the least likely to be vaccinated.
Kathryn Stebner, an elder-abuse attorney in San Francisco, noted that the high cost of many assisted living facilities is often prohibitive for the working class and people of color. "African Americans are dying [from covid] at a rate three times as much as white people," she said. "Are they getting these vaccine offers?"