At 17, Jose Mejia has mapped out a plan for his life.

When Mejia graduates from Alief Elsik High School next June, he plans to take a two-year gap and work full-time before starting college nearby — perhaps Texas A&M University, or the University of Houston, where his brother is finishing his bachelor’s degree in business. He wants to work as a diesel mechanic for 30, maybe 40, years then purchase a big rig to start a second career as a trucker.

A recent text from Harris County Public Health may fast-track his dreams. In early June, Mejia found out from his brother Seguis Lopez, 30, that he had won $5,000 in the county’s first scholarship lottery for teens who receive a COVID-19 vaccine, part of a program to motivate youth to sign up for a shot.

“I thought he was joking,” Mejia said.

At first glance, the text looked like a scam: “Congratulations!! You are a winner of Harris County’s ‘Vaccine Incentive Scholarship’ drawing!!”

If it hadn’t come straight from the same phone number that had sent the whole family confirmation of their NRG Park vaccine sign-ups and second appointment reminders, Lopez and Mejia would’ve been more doubtful.

“We don’t have good luck with winning,” Lopez said as the family erupted in laughter in the living room of their west Houston apartment.

Cash for shots

As the rate of immunizations slowed in May, the county looked to incentives such as Jose Altuve bobbleheads and gift cards to galvanize interest in vaccines. Harris County Commissioners Court approved up to $250,000 in vaccine incentives in late April.

And in early June, Harris County Public Health announced it would award $5,000 scholarships for college, vocational or trade schools. Anyone who is 18 or younger and received their COVID-19 shots from a county vaccination site is automatically entered.

Lina Hidalgo, the Harris County Judge, saw what her counterparts across the country were doing — the mayor of Lancaster, Calif. launched a $10,000 scholarship raffle, and Ohio debuted a “Vax-a-Million” lottery — and suggested local leaders do the same.

Experts can’t say definitively whether the vaccine incentives boost the rates of people signing up for a shot, but Hidalgo said there are no comparisons to what would have happened if the county hadn’t piloted the program.

“Does this effort in itself solve the problem? No,” Hidalgo said. “But we have to try because we have a solution to get ourselves out of this pandemic and literally save lives.”

The program also fits with Hidalgo’s mission of increasing educational opportunities for youth.

The money will be sent directly to the institution, although the date of disbursement has not been set, said Jennifer Kiger, a COVID-19 incident commander for Harris County Public Health. Each scholarship comes out of the Commissioners Court vaccine incentive budget.

Two other teens have won cash in Harris County Public Health’s student vaccine lottery draw. Ten winners will be selected, one per week through the second week of August.

In addition to the vaccine scholarship raffle, there are also giveaways for Travis Scott concert tickets and gift cards worth as much as $1,000. There may be additional vaccine incentives after the scholarship drawings end, Kiger said.

Teens and the vaccine

In Texas, clinicians have vaccinated 14.6 million people with at least one dose of the COVID-19 shot. About 23 percent of Harris County kids between 12 and 18 have been vaccinated against COVID-19, Kiger said.

When Mejia signed up for a vaccine in May, he wasn’t doing it for the promise of $5,000. It was because of his older brother’s pending nuptials.

Seguis Lopez and Nima Vadgama were forced to postpone their wedding by a year and shrink the 300-plus guest list down to 50 friends and immediate family members. While the pair had a courthouse wedding in 2020, they still had plans for a reception at the Hilton Post Oak in July. Every guest who is eligible for a shot must be fully vaccinated by their wedding, and only two more people need to receive the second vaccine dose, Vadgama said.

The couple thinks that making vaccines a requirement to receive an invitation helped pressure their hesitant loved ones into receiving a shot.

News of Mejia winning the scholarship has also forced some friends to reconsider their stance on the vaccine. Of the five other teens in his closest friend group, three had already been vaccinated. Two were still on the fence when he won the cash.

“It’s funny ’cause my friends were on Twitter and the county posted on Twitter, and one of my friends asked if I really won a scholarship, and I said ‘yeah, apparently,’” Mejia said. “He sent it to the group chat. Some of my friends weren’t vaccinated yet, seeing the tweet made them want the vaccine.”

Congratulations to Jose Mejia from Elsik High School, the first winner of our Harris County Public Health Vaccine Scholarship Program! Every week, we’re selecting a new scholarship winner among students under 18 who’ve gotten vaccinated through Harris County Public Health. pic.twitter.com/PZuoTl5YRo

— Office of Judge Lina Hidalgo (@HarrisCoJudge) June 14, 2021

Multi-pronged approaches are necessary to encourage vaccination rates, public health officials said. With the Delta variant arriving this summer (the new strain makes up an estimated one in four new infections are the Delta variant), kids and other unvaccinated people are at highest risk for catching severe illness.

“We saw more success during the school year when Harris County Public Health was able to partner with the independent school districts, charter schools and private schools to offer vaccinations on site,” Kiger said.

Now, the department is bringing shots to restaurants, houses of worship, libraries, food bank outposts, apartment complexes and senior centers around the region in hopes of reaching people where they would find it most convenient.

Not the plan

Mejia’s mother, Graciela Lopez, teared up when she found out about her second youngest son’s win. The mother of seven does not speak English, but emphasized the importance of education to her sons and daughters, who in turn worked to put themselves through college.

“I feel very grateful for the chance for my kid to do more in school,” Graciela Lopez said through her sons.

Now, instead of delaying plans for a bachelor’s degree, Mejia will follow in his siblings’ footsteps and go straight to college after he graduates high school in 2022. He plans to use the scholarship money at Houston Community College before transferring to a larger college or university.

It’s a little different from the gap year plan Mejia used to lay out every time someone asks him what he wants to do for a career, but that’s fine. He’d rather have the $5,000 boost for school than thousands of dollars in student debt.

“This is a really big deal for people who struggle with money,” Mejia said.

gwendolyn.wu@chron.com

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