Will a push to jumpstart Alaska’s stalled vaccine progress work?

There was a time, not so long ago, when Alaska’s vaccination rate among U.S. states was second to none. A combined vaccination effort from the state Department of Health and Social Services and Alaska Native health agencies paid off, with the Last Frontier outpacing the Lower 48 in the race to protect our population from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then the other shoe dropped. Vaccinations tapered as those left to inoculate were increasingly hesitant to sign up for their shots. Alaska got passed by other states — then it got lapped. We currently sit in 32nd place among U.S. states, with only 55.4% of the state’s eligible population fully vaccinated. And the consequences of that status are revealing themselves after the arrival of the delta variant.

We’re still learning about the delta variant, but it’s clear that the news isn’t good: The coronavirus’ mutation has resulted in a strain that is more than twice as contagious. For those who have yet to be vaccinated, the variant is also more likely to be severe — a study last week found unvaccinated people infected by the delta variant are twice as likely to be hospitalized. And although hospitals have had success in reducing COVID-19′s death rate, those who require inpatient care are straining health care capacity, resulting in delays or denial of care to those with other ailments. It’s burning out doctors, nurses and other hospital staff at an alarming rate, and with vaccine hesitancy becoming a partisan issue, there’s no sign of a quick turnaround. The only positive for Alaska’s vaccination rate is that inoculations have ticked upward during the past month, as vaccine-hesitant Alaskans have witnessed the effects of the delta variant firsthand — and it’s hard to call that truly good news.

State health authorities and the business community recognize that this is untenable. Alaska can’t get its people healthy with half of them sitting on the sideline during a pandemic, and businesses can’t get back on their feet if their employees are getting sick and their customers are justifiably worried about spending as much time as they used to out in public. With this in mind, DHSS and the Alaska Chamber have joined forces for the Give AK a Shot campaign, an effort to offer Alaskans a chance at cold, hard cash — to the tune of a symbolic $49,000 for 18 lucky Alaskans (nine drawings are for adults, who get cash, and nine are for 12-18 year olds, who will receive $49,000 in a 529 college fund — and their parent or caretaker, if they’re vaccinated too, will also get $10,000). To qualify, all you have to do is get your first vaccine shot, then register online at giveakashot.com for the drawing the same week. This is important — you can’t register for the drawing later.

There have been mixed opinions about vaccination incentives; some people have argued that people shouldn’t have to be coerced to do the right thing for their community. But although that’s true, misinformation about the vaccines’ safety record (they are safe, with the Pfizer vaccine now fully approved by the FDA) and effectiveness (they are effective, as the vast differences in hospitalizations between vaccinated and unvaccinated people can attest) has poisoned the well when it comes to public trust. If it takes a cash prize to motivate Alaskans to get their shots and help protect our state from COVID-19, then that’s what it takes. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be necessary, but $49,000 prizes are much cheaper than hospital stays, which run tens of thousands of dollars per day — and at the end of the day, all of us pay for that, whether in our taxes or our insurance premiums.

And, fortunately, those of us who already got our shots will be eligible for one of the drawings, too: Those who are already vaccinated can submit their information at any time between now and Oct. 30 to qualify for a final drawing on Nov. 4. Admittedly, the incentives are heavily weighted toward new vaccinations — but that’s understandable, as it’s those new vaccinations that we need now to end the pandemic and return to something closer to normal.

We’re all in this together. If you haven’t got your COVID shot, or if your friends haven’t, get on it and spread the word. There just might be a big cash windfall in it for you — and with the fate of this year’s Permanent Fund dividend up in the air, big cash windfalls are in short supply lately.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.