With only about two-fifths of Clarke County residents fully vaccinated, the Athens-Clarke County Commission approved an incentive of up to $200 for reluctant individuals to get the jab starting Sept. 1.
In a deal with the Clarke County Health Department, ACC will be doling out a $100 prepaid debit card per shot to anyone who lives, works or goes to school in Clarke County. The initial expense of $250,000 will cover 2,000 shots, plus administrative costs and police officers to guard the gift cards. Funding comes from the nearly $30 million ACC received this year from the federal American Rescue Plan.
“We know, of course, we unfortunately have components of this community that historically have had under-attained access to health-care resources,” Mayor Kelly Girtz said at the commission’s Aug. 17 meeting. “This program will really be to target those members of the community and get those vaccination rates up.”
Because vaccine drives are already underway on campus and UGA is offering its own incentives, Northeast Health District Administrator Emily Eisenman said she doesn’t expect the offer to attract many UGA students. She said the program will target undervaccinated Census tracts where “the money might get them over the edge” to overcome their hesitancy. “A lot of this will be targeted in the neighborhoods we’re in to make sure we’re getting the right demographics that really need the vaccine, to get the numbers up there,” she said.
UGA is offering a $20 gift card and a T-shirt for getting the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as a chance to win a $100 gift card in a weekly drawing.
“It is a shame we have to pay people to get a vaccine that protects their own lives, as well as the lives of everybody around them, but we’re gonna do what we gotta do,” Commissioner Melissa Link said. “It’s also a shame we live in a community where the region’s largest employer refuses to or is unable to mandate vaccination for staff or students. We have a high transient population. We have a lot of students coming in and out of the community who consider themselves low-risk for serious illness, but they’re very much high-risk for getting COVID because of behavioral choices.”
Some commissioners questioned the eventual cost—two shots for every eligible unvaccinated Clarke County resident would cost more than $10 million. Commissioner Jesse Houle said he’d prefer a lottery system, and Commissioner Mariah Parker suggested offering the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be more fiscally responsible. The health department offers all three, Eisenman said, and people often have a strong preference. “We’re never going to persuade someone to take one vaccine over another, because the key is to get them vaccinated,” she said.
The $100 figure came from previous incentive trials in other counties. “We didn’t notice much enthusiasm for $10,” Eisenman said. Likewise, Dekalb County tried $20 and $50 without much success, but a $100 event drew 1,100 people. “That $100, that three digits there, seems to be the sweet spot that gets people’s attention,” she said.
Recipients will have a choice of a gift card from Walmart, Kroger or Dollar General or a card good at a variety of downtown Athens businesses.
In other business, the commission approved grant applications for broadband internet and water and sewer projects. ACC is seeking $38 million from Georgia’s $1.2 billion share of ARP funds to build stormwater culverts, replace aging sewer lines, convert a rock quarry into a reservoir and build a system to recycle wastewater for industrial uses, reducing demand for potable water during droughts.
The county is also applying for federal funding through the state to supplement $6 million in SPLOST funds for high-speed wireless internet at government facilities, downtown and in rural parts of the county that lack access to broadband internet. While it’s been discussed for years, municipal internet service became even more urgent during the pandemic, when many people were working from home and Clarke County School District students were taking virtual classes. Some parents either couldn’t afford or didn’t have access to high-speed internet, leading to students taking online classes in their cars outside of schools or restaurants with Wi-Fi.
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