When it comes to COVID-19, Alaska is on a roll lately. With the exception of a nasty Ketchikan outbreak, transmission rates are falling statewide. The state last week fell to an “Intermediate” alert level, reflecting fewer than 10 daily cases per 100,000 residents — the first time in eight months cases had been that low. Anchorage is doing even better, falling below an average of five daily cases per 100,000 residents for the first time since last summer. Local states of emergency are ending. Health mandates and capacity restrictions are being lifted. Almost every trend is heading in the right direction — except vaccinations. Our state’s sluggish vaccination rate could endanger our health and our economy if an outbreak occurs before herd immunity is achieved via inoculation.
Here’s what we can do to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The only easy day was yesterday
Fortunately, Alaska got a great jump-start on vaccinations, thanks to strong response from the state’s senior population and diligent efforts by the state and Native health care providers, especially in rural communities, where high vaccination rates are essential to keeping outbreaks from overwhelming local clinics. But after initial surges in vaccine demand as the state progressively opened new tiers, Alaska quickly got shots in the arms of the vast majority of those who were keen enough to seek out clinics, book appointments, research availability and navigate booking websites. In the past month, the flood of vaccinations has slowed to a trickle. The easy wins are over; now it’s up to the state and Alaskans to do the work of reaching out to those who, for all manner of reasons, are less proactive about seeking out the vaccine.
A job for everyone
The good news is that many Alaskans who haven’t yet received their shots are open to vaccination, they’re just not inclined to seek it out. It’s becoming clear that, in order to reach that segment of our population, we need to bring the vaccine to them. Some businesses are already taking the lead in volunteering as pop-up clinic locations: From HooDoo Brewing Co. in Fairbanks to the Bear Tooth restaurant here in Anchorage, from cideries to movie theaters, these businesses are meeting their unvaccinated customers where they already are — and, in some cases, offering a free piece of pizza as an incentive for those who step up for their first doses. This is exactly what we need to keep the vaccination rate rolling — and we need even more of it.
This is good news for local businesses and groups: For the first time since the pandemic’s start, there’s a way for individual establishments to help hasten its end and make sure we don’t experience a case spike that could lead to renewed restrictions on businesses. If you own a business, consider hosting a pop-up clinic. If it’s possible and makes sense, offer an incentive that will help bring people in — entertainment, discounts or minor freebies. Allow employees time off to get vaccinated, and make allowances for those who feel under the weather the day after their shots. In Las Vegas, even strip clubs are hosting clinics, a recognition that everyone’s help is needed to help carry our nation across the finish line and defeat COVID-19 for good.
And it need not be just businesses that take the lead on hosting clinics. There’s no reason community groups can’t do the same, both for their own members and the general public. We can and should have pop-up clinics hosted by Rotary clubs. By running groups after races. By local chambers of commerce. By churches that want to see all of their parishioners back in the pews safely. Buy-in and advocacy from these communities is essential, because surveys of vaccine-hesitant Americans have shown that the advice of trusted figures — from family doctors to barbers — makes a huge difference in the decision to get vaccinated.
Alaska could also do worse than to emulate the growing trend of states that offer explicit incentives for vaccination beyond the shot’s potentially lifesaving benefits. Ohio, led by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, made headlines by offering chances at million-dollar lottery jackpots and full-ride college scholarships to vaccinated residents. That strategy was initially derided by many, but has shown its wisdom, as vaccination rates in Ohio are up nearly 50% since its introduction.
As Alaska faces a massive budget deficit, lawmakers may be understandably loath to dole out million-dollar jackpots as an incentive, but what about, say, a chance at the cash equivalent of a second Permanent Fund dividend? What if the state gave each vaccinated resident a free entry into a draw hunt? There are plenty of innovative options that could be the difference-maker to convince more Alaskans to do their part and get their shot.
The state’s free-vaccines-for-tourists incentive, now about to begin, was an excellent idea. We need more outside-the-box thinking like that to get Alaska back to the top tier of states for vaccinations.