Pitching free baseball in exchange for getting a shot: Mallards, Meriter partner to incentivize vaccines

MADISON, Wis. – The familiar sights and sounds of a baseball can feel new after the pandemic, but Thursday night’s Madison Mallards game was a bit different than a traditional game.

They paid tribute to the Milwaukee Bears, a 1923 Negro League team, wearing vintage-style uniforms and hats and selling merchandise. The first 1,000 fans got custom Negro League baseball cards. Part of the game’s proceeds will go to the Urban League of Greater Madison.

Beyond that, the game offered a unique pitch to get people vaccinated.

“We try to be reflective of the community all the time,” Madison Mallards President Vern Stenman said. “Whatever is happening in our community, we want to respond to it, react to it.”

Through a partnership with UnityPoint Health-Meriter, Mallards fans who get a COVID-19 vaccine at Thursday’s game got free Duck Blind general admission soda tickets, with the option to upgrade to beer tickets for an additional fee.

“We landed on the idea of, let’s bring together a cool promotion that’s fun and interesting, and use the Great Dane Duck Blind as an incentive to hopefully get people to vaccinate,” Stenman said. “There’s a big group of people here on the north side of Madison specifically we wanted to target.”

Now that vaccine interest has slowed considerably, health officials have focused more on meeting people where they’re at – and Thursday, that happened to be a baseball game.

“I’ve done vaccines in some interesting places. I used to work in public health,” said Beth Borkowski, an infection prevention nurse at Meriter. “But not a baseball game. This is a first.”

Borkowski said her main approach was to engage in conversation and answer questions.

“I think that’s what really helps people most, not to pressure them but to engage in dialogue,” she said. “The more people we can reach, the more protection we can offer the entire community — protection for people who aren’t able to get vaccinated.”

“It’s a little nerve-wracking about the Delta variant and wondering how this is going to affect us, especially come fall,” said Marzena Schumann, an Intensive Care Unit nurse manager at Meriter. “If more people aren’t going to get vaccinated, it’s really a little terrifying, hard to think about. We don’t want to go back to where we were this fall.”

Meriter’s ICU was being honored, too, with Schumann throwing the first pitch.

“This just means a lot to our team,” she said.

That’s especially true after an intense year.

“It was really challenging to see what families had to go through,” Schumann said.

Moving forward, she and other health care workers know it takes a team effort to protect everyone.

“In doing this, I’ve seen a lot of people with Small Pox scars, and being able to give the COVID vaccine right next to it is a reminder it is possible to eradicate this virus,” Borkowski said. “You just need everyone to be able to participate in that.”

“There is an end in sight,” Schumann said. “You can get vaccinated. That will solve so much of this.”