Let’s start by being as straightforward as possible: We want Alaskans to get vaccinated.
As director of the Alaska Division of Public Health and president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber, respectively, we’re aligned in this common goal from different perspectives. On the health care side, we’re more than year and a half into this fight against COVID-19 and now battling another surge that is again threatening our health care system. From the business side, we know healthy people are the foundation of a healthy economy. Businesses across Alaska are continuing to struggle as people have lost or changed jobs, altered behaviors due to the pandemic or had to isolate or quarantine after becoming sick or exposed to COVID-19.
Workers in many of sectors, but especially health care, are experiencing burnout. Since the pandemic began, more than 2,000 Alaskans have been hospitalized because of COVID-19, more than 400 have died and tens of thousands have been infected with the virus. While many of those infected have had only mild illness or no symptoms, others have died, been very sick or continue to suffer long-term symptoms that make daily life or work difficult. The situation has become so bad it’s now affecting Alaska’s standard of health care for other issues, from broken bones, strokes or cancer to maternal health or long-term care for the elderly.
Vaccinations are steadily increasing in Alaska, but not fast enough to keep the highly contagious delta variant from ripping through our state.
At this point in the pandemic, we have all heard tragic and heart-wrenching stories of Alaskans old and young, healthy or high risk, suffering from the virus or reeling from the loss of a friend or family member. The COVID-19 vaccines remain the best way to protect ourselves, our families and others against the virus — and are the best way out of the pandemic for everyone. Unfortunately, compared to other states, Alaska lags behind roughly two-thirds of U.S. states in vaccinations per capita.
We need a figurative — and literal — shot in the arm to increase vaccinations, decrease human suffering and hospitalizations, and help Alaska finally realize a meaningful economic recovery.
Getting people to do something they’ve said they don’t want to do is hard. Having vaccine questions and concerns answered by a trusted health care provider, family member or friend has convinced some to choose vaccination. Others simply needed a convenient place and time or were waiting for full authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which happened last week for the Pfizer vaccine. For others, incentives make a difference.
The State of Alaska will never mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, but incentives have been used with some success — both in in Alaska and other states. Earlier this summer, the Alaska Chamber distributed $1 million in federal incentive funding to local chambers of commerce and other organizations who offered vaccine incentives like cash, gift cards, raffle tickets or Alaska-centric prizes like airline miles, snowmachines or stove oil.
The Give AK a Shot program, a new chamber-led incentive program announced this week, provides Alaskans the opportunity to win a substantial cash payout for choosing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Give AK a Shot aims to move even more unvaccinated Alaskans over the barriers of procrastination, hesitation, inconvenience, lack of information or whatever it may be to hopefully choose vaccination.
Between the recent full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine for ages 16 and older, the somewhat bumpy return to school we’ve seen across the state, and the frighteningly high rate of hospitalizations among the unvaccinated, we believe now is the time to provide Alaskans with one more reason to choose to vaccinate. After all, the chance to win a large cash prize or money for education could provide 49,000 reasons to do so.
We recognize not everyone will agree with our approach. That’s fine. Alaskans who choose not to vaccinate or have privacy concerns can choose not to participate. The incentive program is voluntary and a personal choice. For some, however, the prospect of winning a life-changing amount of money will be just the right motivation to get vaccinated now. We expect vaccination rates to increase, making our communities safer and better protected from this ever-evolving virus.
We encourage Alaskans sitting on the vaccination fence to make it a priority to roll up their sleeves and get the COVID-19 vaccine now. Reasons for doing so can be deeply personal, like protecting a vulnerable loved one. They can be practical, like not wanting to infect classmates or co-workers. And now, with Give AK a Shot, they can also be financial. The odds of winning a hefty cash prize may never be better, and it comes with the awesome benefit of keeping yourself and others better protected from this virus we are all ready to relegate to the history books.
Heidi Hedberg is the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ director of public health.
Kati Capozzi is the president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber, the state’s largest business advocacy organization.
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