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Shot incentives offered in Alabama despite state resistance

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A north Alabama city, state universities and others are offering cash and other perks for people to get vaccinated for COVID-19 despite the state’s resistance to incentives aimed at improving the state’s worst-in-the-nation inoculation program.

In Gadsden, which last week began offering $100 cash to residents who get fully vaccinated between July 19 and Oct. 15, 94 people received shots in six days, said Deborah Gaither, director of the Gadsden Etowah County Emergency Management Agency.

“That’s a really good number,” Gaither said Tuesday, adding: “Some of our pharmacies stated they haven’t give a vaccine in weeks.”

While some complained about getting vaccinated earlier and not being eligible for the money, Gaither said the city of 35,000 had to do something to boost immunizations since cases of COVID-19 are rising rapidly.

“We’re at the point now that we’ve got to do whatever it takes to get people vaccinated,” she said. Nearly everyone who is hospitalized or dying now is unvaccinated, officials have said.

Auburn University, with an enrollment of more than 30,000 students, announced incentives including improved parking, free meals, $1,000 scholarships, priority class registration and lunch for four with the president to students who are fully vaccinated for the fall semester. As part of the program, students have to agree to let the school publicize their prize.

The University of Alabama said it will provide a $20 credit on a student debit card to any student who proves they are vaccinated by Aug. 28, and Montgomery-area government, public schools and the state health department are providing free state fair tickets to people who get fully vaccinated in the capital.

Dr. Scott Harris, head of the Alabama Department of Public Heath, said he supports local initiatives to boost vaccinations but that other states have had minimal success with larger incentive programs.

“I would say we’re certainly not opposed to incentives at all. However, I don’t know of an incentive program that has been wildly successful anywhere,” he told a news conference.

The state prison system also is offering $5 in commissary credits for inmates who get vaccinated even though Gov. Kay Ivey has refused to consider such incentives for the general public. Instead, she has said, “common sense” should be enough for people to get the shots.

Just 34.1% of Alabama’s population is fully vaccinated, the lowest nationally. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have risen to 1,083, the highest since mid-February, amid the worsening spread of a new variants, and more than 11,490 have died of the illness caused by the coronavirus.

In an opinion piece published Tuesday by The Washington Post, Ivey defended her approach.

“There are those who believe that government should mandate the vaccine or that we should bribe people to take it. That’s not going to happen in my state, no matter how many times the media ask me,” wrote Ivey, who was vaccinated in public months ago.

Ivey, who previously said it was “time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” for the worsening rise in cases, wrote that “those who are pushing fake news and conspiracy theories about this vaccine are reckless and causing great harm to people.”

“The unvaccinated folks are being lied to, and that is just plum sad.” Ivey said in the piece.

Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by 1,033, a jump of 185%, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. There were 345 new cases per 100,000 people in Alabama over the past two weeks, which ranks seventh in the country for new cases.

While relatively few people are now wearing face masks in public in the state despite its low vaccination rate, Harris told a news conference that people without vaccinations should continue covering their mouth and nose in public. Harris said he does not expect the state to issue another order requiring masks.

Cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations are still far below the levels from December and January, but Harris said the growth in cases right now is “unprecedented.”

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