Harlingen to consider offering cash cards to boost vaccination rate

HARLINGEN — Across the country, public health officials are raffling off television sets, computers and video games to help boost the vaccination rate as the Delta variant drives COVID-19 cases closer to levels recorded during the pandemic’s height.

At City Hall, officials are mulling handing out cold hard cash to reach residents holding out on the vaccine as one of the state’s highest vaccination rates begins to stall.

“We hope we can close the gap on unvaccinated adults and children,” Josh Ramirez, the city’s health director, said Monday.

On Wednesday, city commissioners are set to consider the proposal to offer $50 cash cards to unvaccinated residents 12 years and older.

“We hope this increases awareness and interest,” Ramirez said. “We understand some people need the incentive. Some are looking for jobs and extra income so I’m sure the extra money would help.”

As part of the plan, officials would dip into the city’s $21 million share of the American Rescue Plan Act to set aside $100,000 to fund the program that would run from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31.

The program would offer $50 cash cards to Cameron County residents 12 years and older after their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Turning to incentives

Across much of the country, public health officials are turning to incentives as the highly contagious Delta variant targets the unvaccinated, spurring a COVID-19 resurgence that’s driving cases closer to levels recorded during the pandemic’s height, pushing many hospitals to capacity while fueling the death toll.

“It seems like everyone is raffling something — TVs, laptops, Xbox games,” Ramirez said. “At this point, anything to get people vaccinated. Nobody thought it was going to end up at this level.”

Cameron County program

In Brownsville, Cameron County officials are offering $50 debit cards to residents 12 to 18 years old who took their first vaccine dose after Aug. 10.

By last Friday, 269 had taken the money along with the vaccine, Esmeralda Guajardo, the county’s health administrator, said.

“It seems like its working,” Ramirez said of the county’s program.

Vaccination rate hitting plateau

Across the county, health officials boast one of the state’s highest vaccination rates, fully vaccinating nearly 75 percent of residents 12 and older.

However, the rate is stalling as officials try to get hold outs to take the vaccine.

“It’s become challenging,” Ramirez said. “We’ve got a variety of reasons. Some didn’t want it, some were afraid. We try to educate them.”

Meanwhile, school districts are grappling with drops in enrollment as many parents continue to keep their children home while officials reopen full classroom schedules after more than a year of on-line learning led many students to fall behind academically.

In Harlingen, Ramirez has held community clinics in July and August to vaccinate area students.

However, about 20 percent of students 12 to 18 years old remain unvaccinated, he said.

“We are grateful to Cameron County, the city of Harlingen and our local health authority for providing vaccinations to our HCISD community and students 12 and older,” Superintendent Alicia Noyola stated.

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