US vaccination rollout is stalling due to dwindling demand

America Letter: Some states have taken to giving out free beer to encourage people to get their jab

For some it’s the promise of free beer. For others a $100 payment may be sufficient enticement. Across the US state governors are coming up with innovative ways of encouraging people to get the coronavirus vaccine.

As its vaccination programme has ramped up in recent weeks, the US faces a new problem – vaccine hesitancy, particularly among certain sections of the population.

While almost 150 million people across the US have received at least one vaccine shot, the daily rate of vaccinations is slowing. The average number receiving a first jab or single dose J&J shot has fallen by 50 per cent since mid-April.

To some extent this slowdown was expected. There was always going to be a rush of people desperate to get the jab once they became available. Now that this cohort has been vaccinated, a new challenge has emerged – trying to encourage those who are eligible to get vaccinated but have not done so.

This week the White House signalled a shift in its approach to the vaccine rollout amid signs that supply is beginning to exceed demand.

President Joe Biden announced a new plan to redirect vaccine supplies to rural communities. Mass vaccination sites will soon give way to smaller facilities closer to harder-to-reach Americans. Pharmacies will be directed to offer walk-in vaccinations, while mobile clinics will begin to operate.

Some states have taken matters into their own hands. West Virginia became the first to offer enticements to vaccine-wary residents. Republican governor Jim Justice announced that those aged between 16 and 35 will receive a $100 (€83) savings bond if they get vaccinated.

The measure will be retroactive, so that all young West Virginians who have already got the jab will receive the payment. The effort is expected to cost the state about $27.5 million. “If we really want to move the needle, we’ve got to get our younger people vaccinated,” the governor said.

Vaccination cards

New Jersey's governor Phil Murphy followed suit, announcing a "shot and beer" programme, whereby vaccinated adults who show their vaccination cards at participating outlets get a free beer.

This week Washington DC's mayor Muriel Bowser announced her own initiative, offering free beer to people receiving the J&J vaccine at an outdoor site on Thursday evening. The move was seen as an effort to increase vaccination amid concern about the low number of federal and private workers who have returned to their offices in DC.

The efforts to ramp up vaccinations come as states across the country begin to reopen for the summer. While officials believe the main issue is access and information – Biden believes more people will get vaccinated once they hear about the benefits of their family and friends getting vaccinated– there is a core group of people who are resolutely in the anti-vax camp.

Some of the resistance falls along partisan political lines. Americans who identify as Republicans are less likely to get the vaccine. A Monmouth poll last month found that 43 per cent of the party’s supporters would not get a Covid-19 jab. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has been busy promoting vaccine sceptic content.

Further, while much attention was directed at the beginning of the vaccine rollout towards communities of colour who have had negative experience of government-driven treatments in the past, it now appears that many rural white communities may in fact be the most resistant to vaccination.

Former president

These are also regions where Donald Trump is popular. Though the former president reportedly got the vaccine before he left the White House, notably he did not do so in public, like other political figures including former vice-president Mike Pence, House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

Given that Trump's unsubstantiated claims about Covid-19 last year helped fuel vaccine scepticism among many of his supporters, some public health figures, such as Dr Anthony Fauci, have called on the former president to use his influence to encourage supporters to get vaccinated.

In the meantime, as the US prepares to expand eligibility for the Pfizer vaccine to 12 to15-year-olds as early as next week, Biden has set himself a new aim of vaccinating 70 per cent of adults by July 4th.

The Biden administration is also mindful of the optics of the US sitting on surplus vaccines while much of the world is desperate for more supply. Biden has argued that his responsibility is to take care of American citizens first. Whether he can continue to make that argument once America passes peak demand is another question.