It’s county fair season in Minnesota, giving public health workers yet another opportunity to reach out to the unvaccinated.
On his way into the Pine County Fair, Bob Pickarski said he now plans on getting vaccinated against COVID-19, even though he has been eligible for the vaccine for months. The financial reward is what finally tipped him over the edge, he said.
“A hundred dollars,” Pickarski, 63, said. “That’s what motivated me.”
His roommate, Rande Swanson, also finally decided to get the shot and the money.
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“It’s kind of like he said, just kind of didn’t get at it,” Swanson said about waiting until now. “Didn’t have a car.”
The Minnesota Department of Health says so far more than 16,000 people have applied for the new $100 gift card vaccine promotion, but that’s likely not the only thing motivating people to get the shots.
In Pine County, Minnesota Department of Health statistics point to a dramatic increase in positive COVID-19 tests. Fewer than half of those in the county who are eligible to get vaccinated have chosen to do so. Positive tests from June to July were up more than 400 percent. So far, just days into August, positive tests here are nearly triple the number reported in the entire month of June.
“It’s been a very slow trickle of getting people vaccinated,” said Pine County Public Health Supervisor Jessica Fehlen. Her agency has set up a booth at the fair to vaccinate people at no charge. It’s just one part of the outreach effort they have launched.
“We have been at a brewery before. We have been at the local town fairs, churches, community meals,” Fehlen said. “So we’re trying to be very versatile in where we go to provide vaccines.”
That even includes twice-weekly visits to the county jail in case an inmate wants the shot.
Bob Neville was sitting in a folding chair in the shade of the county public health tent preparing for his shot.
“Does it hurt when they put it in there?” he asked.
Neville too took notice of the $100 incentive, but it wasn’t the only reason he decided to get vaccinated. He has watched case counts rising in other states, and his family and friends have been pressuring him.
“Yeah, like my mom said, ‘Why haven’t you been vaccinated yet?’ And people at work say, ‘What are you waiting for?’ But there’s still a lot of people that haven’t, I think,” Neville said.
Because a much larger percentage of Minnesotans are vaccinated than residents of Florida and Louisiana, Minnesota is not likely to see a similar spike in cases, said epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Still, Osterholm is repeating his warning that complacency will catch up with unvaccinated people.
"Even with the number of people vaccinated that have this virus, it'll find the rest of remaining individuals who are not vaccinated and who have not been protected by previous infection immunity,” Osterholm said. “And so, we just have to let people know that you can't run the game clock out on this one."
Osterholm said vaccinated and immunocompromised people who can't have the vaccine, should wear N-95 face masks in areas where large numbers of people are not vaccinated. He says those masks protect much more against the prevalent delta variant of the virus than simple cloth masks and are now widely available and no longer need to be reserved for medical personnel.
As for the $100 gift cards, Osterholm said such incentives have proven popular initially but in the long run have had mixed results.
Avoiding disincentives can also push people toward vaccination, he said.
"And what I mean by that is I think you're going to see more and more businesses and more and more work settings where they're going to basically mandate that you be vaccinated,” Osterholm said. “And if you're not, you can't come into the location."