Young people who get the COVID-19 vaccine in West Virginia won't just gain protection against a deadly virus — they'll also make money.
The state will offer a $100 savings bond to everyone between the ages of 16 and 35 who gets vaccinated, Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, announced at a Monday briefing. It's part of an ongoing push to get shots into the arms of younger residents, who have been largely slow to roll up their sleeves so far.
"Our kids today probably don't really realize just how important they are in shutting this thing down," Justice said. "I'm trying to come up with a way that's truly going to motivate them — and us — to get over the hump."
The initiative will apply retroactively to people in this age group who have already gotten their shots. It is funded with money from the CARES Act, with Justice adding that officials have "vetted this in every way that we possibly can."
West Virginia's vaccine rollout got off to a famously strong start earlier this year. Despite challenges such as a widespread lack of Internet access, the largely rural state had managed to fully vaccinate such a large percentage of its eligible population by late February that, had it been a country, it would have ranked third in the world.
But as eligibility expanded, the pace of vaccinations slowed. The state now ranks 29th in the country, according to NPR's vaccine tracker, which says 29% of the population has been fully vaccinated and 35.3% has had at least one dose.
West Virginia opened vaccinations to residents ages 16 and older in mid-March but is continuing to prioritize vaccinations for those 65 and older. As of Monday, Justice said, more than 78% of people in the older age group have received at least one dose, while 68.5% have been fully vaccinated.
Demand for vaccines has dipped in recent weeks, with West Virginia Public Broadcasting noting that "most who wanted to be vaccinated have been, and the remaining West Virginians just don't want the shot, leaving local health officials scrambling to use up their shipments."
So the state has turned its attention to vaccinating young people, who are now getting infected at noticeably higher rates.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported earlier this month that people younger than 20 were accounting for 26% of all cases statewide, compared to 16% over the course of the pandemic. More than 30 school outbreaks had been reported at the time, many tied to extracurricular activities and social events.
Justice said Monday that the state's 380,000 residents between 16 and 35 are "not taking vaccines as fast as we'd like them to take them."
"If we really want to move the needle, we've got to get our younger people vaccinated," he added.
Justice's goal is to get more than 70% of West Virginia's eligible population vaccinated. He said that if approximately 80% of people in this age group who have not yet gotten the shot choose to do so, the overall statewide vaccination rate will exceed that number.
"If we can get to 70%, we'll shut this virus down," he said. "If we do that, the masks go away, the hospitalizations go away, and the deaths become minimal."
As of Monday, the state's health department had recorded 151,671 total coronavirus cases and 2,821 deaths since the start of the pandemic.