Kentucky still needs to vaccinate more than 500,000 people to reach the goal set by Gov. Andy Beshear earlier this month. Beshear said on April 12 he would lift restrictions on businesses when 2.5 million Kentuckians got their share of antibodies, but the number of vaccines administered fluctuates day to day.
Although state leaders and public health officials like Beshear have continued to urge more people to sign up for a shot, there is growing concern that demand is slowing around Kentucky, especially in rural areas where vaccination rates are still low.
Nationwide, 42% of the population received at least one shot and 29% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Kentucky is slightly ahead of the curve, with 30% of the population fully vaccinated, but vaccination rates still lag behind in some Western Kentucky counties such as Christian and Ballard, where 12% and 14% of the population were fully vaccinated as of April 19.
Public health officials in the region say vaccinating everyone remains a challenge, but that incentive programs meant to encourage people to get vaccinated may help the state reach its goals. Several local employers offer $100 payments, days off and other incentives to entice their staff to get the shot. In neighboring West Virginia, Republican Gov. Jim Justice recently announced the state would provide a $100 savings bond to every resident who gets vaccinated.
Spokespeople for Beshear did not respond to questions about the prospects of a vaccination incentive program in Kentucky. Vaccine researchers from the University of Kentucky say incentive programs may help reach pockets of unvaccinated people, but they won’t fully alleviate the skepticism that continues to surround the COVID-19 vaccine.
There are three types of people Billy Pitts said he needs to reach as public health director of Marshall County, where 23% of the county was fully vaccinated as of April 19.
First: those who want a vaccine. Pitts said many of those people have been calling health departments since December 2020, trying for their chance at a vaccine.
Second: those who have decided that they will not get a vaccination. Pitts said many of those people may only change their mind if they, a family member or close friend has a severe brush with the virus.
The vaccines currently deployed to fight the coronavirus have been determined safe and effective by multiple studies, but many people are still hesitant to sign up for a shot.
Third: those who are thinking about getting vaccinated but are hesitant.
Pitts said the incentives are most likely going to entice those people to get vaccinated.
“I’m hoping that a good majority of those folks will go ahead and do it. I really am,” Pitts said.
Graves County Public Health Director Noel Coplen reported some local businesses are providing incentives to help increase the number of employees vaccinated in the area.
Coplen said Pilgrim’s Pride, a multinational food company with a facility in Mayfield, is providing $100 to each employee who has been vaccinated, and some chemical plants in Calvert City are providing their own incentives such as on-site vaccinations, bonuses, and days off. However, representatives from the companies were not available for confirmation.
Just 17% of the Graves County population is fully vaccinated. Coplen is hopeful the incentives will lead Kentucky toward herd immunity, but doesn’t think they will sway everyone.
“If somebody has some legitimate concerns, you know, $100 isn’t going to take away that concern,” Coplen said.
Some national companies are providing monetary incentives to employees. Petco is giving associates who receive a vaccination a $75 bonus. Aldi, Dollar General, and Trader Joe’s are offering four hours of pay in exchange for getting vaccinated. Kroger is giving employees $100 in store credit and a $100 bonus for getting a shot, while Publix is offering employees a $125 gift card.
Vincent Venditto with the College of Pharmacy at the University of Kentucky is an assistant professor focused on design and development of vaccines. Venditto said incentives may be an effective tool that can help vaccinate more people, but won’t replace genuine outreach to communicate the benefits of the vaccine.
“If you have an incentive program to help people get vaccinated, that has to be coupled with education, and with direct interaction with people to address their questions and concerns,” Venditto said.
(This article is part of a special series produced by Murray State University students participating in an investigative reporting fellowship. MSU’s Journalism and Mass Communications Department and WKMS News collaborated to create the fellowship program in partnership with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Four Murray State students dedicated a semester of learning to the program.)