Small pharmacies helping with vaccines

Pharmacist Gary Cunningham, of Bypass Pharmacy on Eisenhower Drive in Beckley, prepares a Covid-19 vaccine earlier this month. (Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)


Free beer, pot and doughnuts. A chance to win an all-terrain vehicle. And in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice is offerng up a $100 Savings Bonds – if feasible – for anyone between the ages of 16 and 35 to roll up their sleeves and get inoculated against Covid-19.

Places around the U.S. are offering incentives to try to energize the nation’s slowing vaccination drive and get Americans to roll up their sleeves.

These relatively small, mostly corporate, promotion efforts have been accompanied by more serious and far-reaching attempts by officials in cities such as Chicago, which is sending specially equipped buses into neighborhoods to deliver vaccines. Detroit is offering $50 to people who give others a ride to vaccination sites, and starting Monday will send workers to knock on every door in the city to help residents sign up for shots.

At his Wednesday pandemic briefing in Charleston, Gov. Justice said that working through the details of purchasing enough savings bonds to cover as many as 280,000 residents in that age category is “taking a whole lot to get there” as far as being set up with the federal government.

“We may send a $100 check,” he said, but the money will be given to those in that age range who get fully vaccinated whether a savings bond or a check.

Justice’s goal is to get about 275,000 of the 380,000 in the 16 to 35 age range to get vaccinated, at a cost of around $27 million. As of Thursday, 120,153 people – or about 31.6 percent of the in the targeted age group – had been fully inoculated, according the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) data.

If the governor’s stated goal is reached, he maintains it would push the percentage of residents vaccinated to 70 percent.

Justice said that would mean the pandemic has been “shut down” and masks will no longer be mandated in indoor public places.

Currently, 52.2 percent of all eligible residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine.

The problem for the governor and public halth authorities across the country the pace of vaccination has slowed to a crawl. On Wednesday, the DHHR reported having given 1,510 doses of the vaccine. Last Wednesday, the number was 2,402 and the week before that it was 3,948. On April 1, the state had administared – on one day – 13,492 doses.

Even at 2,000 doses a day, it would take the state 137.5 days to reach 275,000.

The cost to cover the payments to that age group is covered by CARES Act money, Justice said, pointing out that shutting down the vaccine would save a lot more money just in testing, as well as save a lot of lives.

“DHHR told me we spent between $19 million and $20 million in the last two months on testing alone,” he said. “What a return on investment (of the money spent on payments to get the shot)” because the need for testing would decrease as well other Covid-related expenses.

Justice also emphasized that payments are retroactive and anyone in the age group who has already had the shot will get paid.

Young people in the state have historically stepped up to fight in wars “over and over again,” he said, and getting the vaccine is “a way of patriotism.”

“I am not asking you to go to war … but something that could save your life or the lives (of family members),” he said. “You are transmitting this thing now more than anyone. You are the key to this whole thing.”

Infections rates bear the governor out. Over the past week, 509 people on the 10-19 age group have been infected by Covid-19, according to DHHR. Thise in the 20-29 and 30-39 age groups rank third and fourth highest of all.

Public health officials say the efforts to entice people to get their vaccines are crucial to reach people who haven't been immunized yet, whether because they are hesitant or because they have had trouble making an appointment or getting to a vaccination site.

“This is the way we put this pandemic in the rearview mirror and move on with our lives," said Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s public health commissioner.

Meanwhile, more activities are resuming around the U.S. as case numbers come down. Disneyland is set to open today after being closed for over a year, while Indianapolis is planning to welcome 135,000 spectators for the Indy 500 at the end of May.

Still, rising hospitalizations and caseloads in the Pacific Northwest prompted Oregon's governor to impose restrictions in several counties, and her Washington counterpart was expected to follow suit.

Active cases in West Virginia, after dipping below 7,000 on Monday, was back above that marker the past two days with readings of 7,081 on Tuesday and 7,153 on Wednesday.

Demand for vaccines has started to fall around the country, something health officials expected would happen once the most vulnerable and most eager to get the shot had the opportunity to do so. Now the vaccination drive is moving into a new, more targeted phase.

“This will be much more of an intense ground game where we have to focus on smaller events, more tailored to address the needs and concerns of focused communities," Stack said.

Nationally, 82 percent of people over 65 and more than half of all adults have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But while vaccinations hit a high in mid-April at 3.2 million shots per day on average, the number had fallen to 2.5 million as of last week.

As demand slows to a trickle at mass vaccination sites such as stadiums, some state and local governments are no longer asking for their full allotment of vaccine from Washington. And many large vaccination sites and pharmacies are letting people walk in, no appointment necessary.

With the shift away from larger sites to pharmacies and medical providers, Pfizer on Thursday said that at the end of May, it will start shipping its two-dose COVID-19 vaccine in smaller packages. The new packages will hold 25 vials with six doses each, rather than trays of 195 vials.

Demand has dropped precipitously in the rugged timberland of northeastern Washington state, where Matt Schanz of Northeast Tri County Health District is at a loss for what to try next.

Seventy-six percent of residents remain unvaccinated in Pend Oreille County and 78 percent in Ferry County, and a whopping 80 percent in Stevens County have not had even one shot.

In West Virginia, 29.31 percent of the total population has been vaccinated, according to the Senters for Disease Control and Prevention placing it 32nd among all 50 states. Maine leads the way with 37.96 percent of its poppulation vaccinated.

West Virginia is also slipping badly when counting the percentage of Covid-19 vaccines administered. The state now stands in 47th place with 70.16 percent of 1,636,815 delivered doses administered. New Hampshire is tops at 89.73 percent.

Chicago officials are planning vaccination sites at festivals and block parties and are working with barber shops and hair and nail salons to pair free services with vaccination.

“The idea here is to bring the party, bring the vaccine and really have this be a convenient way for people to get vaccinated,” Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said.

Several companies have announced that employees can take paid time off to get vaccinated. In Houston, 31-year-old Elissa Hanc works for one of them, 3 Men Movers.

Her employer started offering the benefit before President Joe Biden announced a tax credit for small businesses to provide paid time off for those getting vaccinated or recovering from the side effects.

“I have a few friends who work where management is not making it a priority to get the vaccine,” Hanc said. “They’ve let me know in no uncertain terms how lucky I am to work where I do.”

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said that employers should give paid time off and that other incentives are needed to boost vaccinations.

Who did he hold up as an example? West Virginia and the governor’s offer of the savings bond.

“We also need health systems and universities to mandate vaccination – that no one can be employed or on campus/medical facilities without having been vaccinated,” Topol said in an email. He also said the nation needs to mount a “counteroffensive” against anti-vaccination websites and activists.

Other companies are getting into the spirit with marketing pitches.

Krispy Kreme began offering a free doughnut a day to anyone showing proof of having been vaccinated. In Cleveland, a movie theater is supplying free popcorn through the end of this month.

Several marijuana dispensaries around the country are giving out cannabis treats or free rolled joints. On April 20, marijuana advocates offered “joints for jabs” to encourage people to get vaccinated in New York City and Washington.

Some breweries around the country are offering “shots and a chaser."

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