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Kern County supervisors approve $25 gift cards for COVID tests

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In this file photo, nurse Dorothy Concepcion administers a COVID-19 test to Maria Martinez during a free event at McFarland Blanco Park.

Receiving a $25 Visa gift card in exchange for a coronavirus test will be the new reality for some in Kern County after a Tuesday vote by the Board of Supervisors.

In a unanimous decision, the governing body approved the testing incentive, which is aimed at increasing the county’s testing numbers. Because Kern County’s testing rate falls below the state average, the COVID-19 metric tracked by the state is artificially increased. Bringing up testing will reduce the state’s penalty, potentially allowing Kern County to allow more business and social activity.

“Money is a big motivator, especially right now,” Supervisor Leticia Perez said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m so grateful for the creativity here and what we’re going to see as a result of it.”

The county’s plan for the gift cards calls for them to be distributed at testing sites in areas selected by Kern County Public Health Services. Potentially, testing sites in census tracts with high rates of COVID-19 could be targeted for the incentive, or poor census tracts that have struggled with testing levels.

“Particularly with those census tracts we’re talking about, they have enough problems already, so anything we can do to help would be helpful,” Supervisor Mike Maggard said Tuesday.

The plan will cost $360,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. A total of $300,000 will be spent purchasing 12,000 gift cards, with $24,000 going to U.S. Bank, which is issuing the gift cards. The remaining $36,000 will be spent on administrative costs.

A limit of one person per card per day will be instituted, meaning a family of four could earn $100 for each day every member is tested.

“I’m supportive of this, and it’s not just the fact that I think it is going to help to incentivise people to come and get tested. I think it also raises awareness,” said Supervisor Zack Scrivner. “It helps to continue to raise awareness at the county of Kern that we’re serious about testing. It’s important for us to test.”

The approval comes on the day that Kern County reverted to the most restrictive tier in the state’s four-tiered Blueprint for a Safer Economy, which governs the level of economic activity that can happen in counties across the state.

The weekly update released by the California Department of Public Health showed the rate of daily new cases in Kern County had doubled since the previous week. With 16.1 new cases per 100,000 residents each day, COVID-19 in Kern County has begun to rise once again.

“We’re watching this next wave of cases, we’re watching what’s happening in the rest of the country, we’ve watched as health care systems and some states have been inundated, and that gets us a little worried,” said Kern County Public Health Services Director Matt Constantine. “What matters is not only how many cases, the peak — and we don’t know where that is — but the duration of the peak.”

To return to the red tier, where the county had been for the last several weeks, Kern would need to see a case rate of less than 7 per 100,000.

The county’s testing numbers are making it harder to return to the orange tier in the midst of the COVID-19 surge. Because Kern County tested an average of 234 people per 100,000 residents when the state average was 271, the state increased Kern’s case rate to 17.9 new cases per 100,000 residents.

Constantine said the county would need to test about 680 more people per day to meet the state average.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.