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Free rides and beer: Incentives are added to vaccine drive
Free beer, pot and doughnuts

Free beer, pot and doughnuts. Savings bonds. A chance to win an all-terrain vehicle. Places across the United States are offering incentives to try to energize the nation’s slowing vaccination drive and get Americans to roll up their sleeves.

These relatively small 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.

Public health officials say the efforts 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 United States as case numbers come down. Disneyland, in Southern California, is set to open Friday 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 is expected to follow suit.

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% 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 no longer are asking for their full allotment of vaccine from Washington. And many large vaccination sites and pharmacies are letting people walk in, no appointment necessary.

The slowdown in the United States stands in stark contrast to the situation in the many poorer corners of the world that are desperate for vaccine.

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% in Ferry County, and a whopping 80% in Stevens County have not had even one shot.

On Wednesday, only 35 people in all three counties booked a first dose through the health agency, down from a peak of 500 daily appointments a few weeks ago.

Schanz ticks off the efforts in the three counties where he is the health agency’s administrator: Newspaper ads, signs and mailers sent with utility bills. Drive-thru vaccination sites at fairgrounds and fire stations. A call center and online scheduling. Outreach to pastors, Republican elected leaders, employers in the lumber industry and an aluminum boat manufacturer. TV and radio interviews.

“Have we reached that point of saturation?” Schanz asked. “How many people do we have who are going to be the hard no’s, and how many are the hesitators and the wait-and-see folks?”

Uncertainty about the vaccine is the biggest barrier, he said: “People say, ‘Jeez, I don’t want to be a government experiment.’”

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 may 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 employers should give paid time off and that other incentives are needed to boost vaccinations. He pointed to West Virginia, which is considering giving $100 savings bonds or checks to young adults who get their shot.

“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.”

In Alaska, which traditionally has low vaccine confidence, the Norton Sound Health Corp., with a hospital in Nome and 15 clinics across Western Alaska, has given away prizes, including airline tickets, money toward the purchase of an all-terrain vehicle and $500 for groceries or fuel.

Trying to use her umbrella to shield herself from the wind and rain, a woman crosses Washington Street in Charleston on a wet and breezy Thursday.

Pew analysis: WV had record personal income growth in 2020 -- all thanks to federal stimulus funds

Personal income in West Virginia grew by 4.89% in 2020, the largest rate of growth in 20 years, but growth that was fueled entirely by a surge in federal government transfer payments — stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits and other pandemic relief, a new analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts shows.

“Every state experienced an uptick in total personal income last year as historic gains in unemployment benefits, federal aid, and other public assistance drove the sharpest annual growth in two decades,” the report notes. “Without government support, most states would have sustained declines in personal income — a key economic indicator — as the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on business activity.”

West Virginia’s 4.89% growth in personal income exceeded the U.S. average of 4.86%, but it was fueled by a 24.92% increase in federal government transfer payments for the year, Pew found.

Otherwise, earnings — which include wages from work, plus extra compensation such as employer-sponsored health benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, and business profits — fell 3.45% in West Virginia in 2020, a steeper drop than the U.S. average of -0.90%, the study found.

Pew found that West Virginia suffered the fourth most-severe drop in wages and employee compensation in 2020: “Hawaii, (-7.7%), Wyoming (-4.0%), Nevada (-3.8%), and West Virginia (-3.5%) experienced the largest declines.”

Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, personal income in West Virginia grew at an anemic 0.25%, according to the report, far below the national average of 2.12% growth.

That runs counter to the narrative Gov. Jim Justice espoused throughout 2020, claiming the state economy was booming despite the pandemic and downplaying the impact of federal stimulus funds on the state’s financial outlook.

Announcing that West Virginia had finished the 2019-20 budget year last June 30 with a revenue surplus, the governor declared in August 2020, “Our economy has just kept percolating and percolating and percolating along.”

He also declared that the state had diversified its economy, citing plunging severance tax collection as proof that the state no longer is overly dependent on the coal and natural gas industries.

“West Virginia is really the diamond in the rough that everybody’s missed,” Justice said of the state’s economy.

The governor repeated that premise in his 2021 State of the State address in February, telling legislators, “West Virginia has not only dug itself out of a hole and got itself on a launch pad, it’s even taken itself off and become that diamond in the rough that everybody’s missed.”

Shortly after, a West Virginia Department of Revenue report determined that the state had received $5.99 billion in federal pandemic stimulus funds to that point, an amount surpassing the state’s entire $4.57 billion general revenue budget for 2020-21.

The Pew study noted, “Government assistance swelled in 2020 compared with a year earlier as policymakers pumped money into the economy to help Americans weather the pandemic, which upended normal economic patterns and left millions unemployed for much of the year.”

Town hall highlights federal bills to support abandoned mine land cleanup, economic renewal in coalfields

Less than 48 hours after U.S. Census officials confirmed that West Virginia had the highest population loss in the nation over the past decade, more than a dozen Appalachian environmental groups held a virtual town hall to address something the Mountain State still has in abundance: abandoned mines.

The groups held the meeting Wednesday afternoon in support of two federal bills that would provide continued funding for cleanup of abandoned mine lands and aim to incentivize states to complete mine reclamation projects that will encourage economic development in communities left reeling by the decline of the coal industry.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced Thursday that he is reintroducing the Senate version of the two bills with four other Democrats.

One bill is the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act. That legislation would release $1 billion from the remaining, unappropriated balance in the federal fund for abandoned mine lands to states to be spent on reclamation projects in communities affected by abandoned mines and the downturn in coal mining.

The other is the Abandoned Mine Land Fee Extension Act. This bill would enact a 15-year extension of the fee levied on coal companies that funds the reclamation program for abandoned mine lands, which is set to expire in September.

The bills are endorsed by the United Mine Workers union, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the National Wildlife Federation and Appalachian Voices.

Image captured from video 

U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., makes the case for two abandoned mine land-focused bills he has introduced during a town hall held by Appalachian environmentalist groups Wednesday.

Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., already introduced the House version of both bills and advocated for them during Wednesday’s town hall.

“[C]leaning up hazardous mine lands and creating jobs is just the right thing to do for the American people,” Cartwright said.

Federal regulators say it would take more than $10 billion of work to reclaim eligible abandoned mine land sites, and Cartwright and other speakers touted the importance of preserving funding for the Abandoned Mine Land reclamation fee program.

“Failure is not an option here,” Cartwright said.

The fee helps provide funding for eligible states like West Virginia to address hazardous conditions and pollution left behind by past coal mining. The U.S. Department of the Interior announced $18.9 million for West Virginia to reclaim abandoned mine lands last month. And more than $8 billion has been distributed to states for abandoned mine land reclamation projects since the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act established the program in 1977.

Wednesday’s town hall featured Blue Acre Appalachian Aquaponics, an Abandoned Mine Land grant-powered joint economic development project in Mingo County that is fostered by the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority and Sprouting Farms, a Summers County-based nonprofit farming education and resource center.

The funding turned an abandoned mine site just inside the town of Kermit, that had dangerous open portals and a slag pile that needed remediated, into a sustainable agricultural enterprise that now has three employees born and raised in Kermit that sells lettuce and tilapia processed onsite to schools, grocery stores and individuals.

Cartwright made the case that the RECLAIM Act, versions of which stalled in the House and Senate last session after being introduced by Cartwright and Manchin, respectively, would bolster the economies of struggling coalfield communities even further.

“There’s no reason that former coal communities should have to wait decades to have cleaner water and more job opportunities in their areas,” Cartwright said. “And that’s where the RECLAIM Act comes in.”

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., co-sponsored the House version of the RECLAIM Act in the last session of Congress.


“Using AML funding to assist with economic revitalization and diversification — as proposed in the RECLAIM Act — is one of the tools needed to help Appalachia and other coal producing regions,” McKinley said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “It is not a silver bullet to fix the damage that will be done to people’s livelihoods — but it is one step we can take.”

The RECLAIM Act would make about $200 million available from fiscal years 2022 to 2026, with funding required to create favorable conditions in economically distressed mining communities.

But West Virginia’s other two representatives in the House aren’t on board with McKinley.

Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., does not support the RECLAIM Act, saying it would divert Abandoned Mine Land program funding from its original purpose. She advocates for modernizing and innovating coal mines, instead.

Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., is noncommittal on the RECLAIM Act, saying he supports its goals but would have to review the specific details of the legislation if it came up for a vote in the House.

Miller and Mooney have co-sponsored a bill introduced by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., competing with Cartwright’s Abandoned Mine Land fee authorization extension proposal. Cheney’s bill, supported by the National Mining Association, would extend the program for seven years — as opposed to the 15 in Cartwright’s legislation — and reduce fees by 40%.

Mooney argued that the seven-year extension would allow Congress the opportunity to revisit the policy so that it doesn’t become outdated. Mooney said the Cartwright bill’s 15-year program fee extension, with no reduction in reclamation fees, could negatively affect the coal industry over time.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who co-introduced a previous version of the RECLAIM Act in 2017 with then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could not be reached for comment.

Wednesday’s town hall was sponsored by the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, the Clinch Coalition, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, ReImagine Appalachia, the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Citizens Climate Lobby, Center for Coalfield Justice, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Interfaith Power and Light, the Alliance For Appalachia, and Appalachian Voices.