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Alaska once led the nation with its COVID-19 vaccination rate; Now it’s in the bottom third of states

The Alaska Chamber is running a sweepstakes with a the potential for a large cash prize every...
The Alaska Chamber is running a sweepstakes with a the potential for a large cash prize every week for newly vaccinated Alaskans.(KTVF)
Published: Sep. 29, 2021 at 5:31 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - When COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, Alaska initially led the nation in its vaccination rates, but after months of incremental increases, it has fallen into the bottom third of states.

Some incentives have been offered to encourage more Alaskans to get their shots.

The Alaska Chamber of Commerce is offering weekly prizes for newly vaccinated residents through Oct. 30. Those Alaskans are eligible to win $49,000 in cash and scholarships for students.

Kati Capozzi, the chamber’s president and CEO, shared data of how many entries it has received:

  • In week one, 1,520 adults and 222 youth aged 12-17 submitted their names
  • In week two, 724 adults and 109 youth aged 12-17 entered the competition

Capozzi said 40% of people who got their shots during that first week submitted their names to the chamber. For the second week, that had dropped to 30% of the total number of Alaskans getting vaccinated.

“Not everyone knows about the program which is unfortunate,” Capozzi added.

The chamber is now sending flyers out to every pharmacy providing vaccines to share information about the sweepstakes. Alaskans who got vaccinated before the contest began can also enter to receive one of the cash prizes and one of the scholarships in the last week of the competition.

Capozzi said a week ago those entries made up the vast majority of the ones sent in. There were 88,938 entries received by the chamber with 85,891 coming from already vaccinated Alaskans.

“We didn’t expect to see thousands and thousands of Alaskans rush out,” Capozzi said about the campaign. “It was about meeting people where they are.”

Other states offered larger prizes earlier in the pandemic, while some have offered guaranteed cash payments for people who get vaccinated. There is no plan to do that at the city level in Anchorage or at a statewide level.

Earlier in the year, the chamber received $1 million from the state health department in federal COVID-19 relief. It then distributed that money as grants to local chambers of commerce and other organizations.

Some, like in Anchorage, offered $50 gift cards for everyone who got vaccinated to be spent at local businesses. Gerace said that was effective in creating a “buzz” for people to get their shots. Cash prizes were offered in Palmer, gasoline was up for grabs in Northwest Alaska and so were airline tickets.

Jessica Barker, the data lead for the state’s vaccine taskforce, said it’s hard to disentangle from the data what any one factor has done to the vaccination rate or if the ongoing delta variant surge has seen an uptick in shots administered.

Earlier this year the state activated a “Sleeves up for Summer” campaign to encourage vaccination among Alaskans with various incentives.

Around 3,000 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are being administered each week across Alaska, said Barker. She described that rate as steady since summer.

In March, two or three times as many first doses were being given across Alaska each week when the chief impediment to getting vaccinated was eligibility, Barker added. Alaska became the first state to open vaccinations to everyone on March 9.

In Anchorage, the city’s health department had been administering around 2,000 shots per day in early March. For the last few weeks, it has been giving 1,400 shots each week.

David Gerace, director of the Anchorage Health Department, said half of those recent vaccinations have been for Pfizer booster shots. The other half are being administered relatively evenly across all eligible age groups, which mirrors statewide trends.

Anchorage is slightly below its goal of 70% of eligible residents receiving their first doses but above the statewide average of 63% among all eligible Alaska residents. Three-quarters of eligible Americans are reported to be fully vaccinated.

With new variants and the newness of the virus, health officials say it’s unclear what percentage of coverage will be needed to reach herd immunity.

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist, spoke on Wednesday about the need to lower case rates. Thirty seven national jurisdictions have recently reported falling virus numbers, he said, but four have seen their numbers increase.

Alaska’s case rate is the highest in the U.S. and five times the national average. West Virginia has the second highest new case rate, but it’s half of Alaska’s.

“We are in a steep, steep upward trajectory,” McLaughlin said.

The state’s data shows the vast majority of Alaskans hospitalized with the virus are among unvaccinated residents.

The challenge in Alaska, and nationwide, has been getting vaccine hesitant residents to get shots, particularly as COVID-19 mitigation efforts have become polarizing and partisan.

It has become harder to find people who want to get vaccinated and health officials say those who choose to now are often being convinced by family and friends. Gerace said there is an understanding that a certain percentage of the population will never get the shot, but he hopes that is as small as possible.

Barker said efforts are going on at local community levels to encourage vaccinations and from the state health department.

“It’s really just kind of normalizing a COVID vaccine,” she added. “It should be no different to getting a flu vaccine or a polio vaccine.”

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