KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On Thursday, President Joe Biden's administration called on states to take advantage of federal relief money to motivate people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as new vaccination rates lag throughout the U.S.
Biden called for states, territories and local governments to do more to incentivize vaccinations amid a new surge in cases and hospitalizations in unvaccinated people, calling on leaders to take advantage of federal relief funding to offer $100 to anyone who gets vaccinated.
Federal officials said they have seen these financial incentives help motivate people to get the vaccine in places that have used them.
The President's announcement Thursday is not a new program. The U.S. Treasury Department updated its guidance in May 2021 to allow vaccine cash incentive programs to be funded by the $350 billion in aid provided to states, territories and local governments offered under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) -- so long as the costs were "reasonably proportional to the expected public health benefit."
“Today, the President is calling on state, territorial, and local governments to provide $100 payments for every newly vaccinated American, as an extra incentive to boost vaccination rates, protect communities, and save lives,” the department said.
A few states across the U.S. have started offering incentives, some in the form of lotteries and others in the form of cash. On Wednesday, New York started a $100 incentive program to vaccinate more people.
Leaders across East Tennessee responded to the announcement, with some saying they would consider and others rejecting it outright without offering a reason.
Here is where different counties and leaders stand on implementing an incentive program are listed below:
State of Tennessee/Governor Bill Lee
The governor's office said it must vet the Biden administration's proposal before commenting. The state said, "Tennesseans have every incentive to get the COVID-19 vaccine," and that it is the "best tool to protect against COVID-19."
Tennessee currently offers no physical incentives for people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and remains near the bottom in the U.S. for the percentage of people fully vaccinated in the state at 39.1% (the U.S. average being just shy of 50% as of July 28).
Active COVID-19 cases in Tennessee grew from 1,619 on July 1, 2021 to 16,876 as of July 28, and new cases grew from 303 daily to 2,677 daily. Concurrent hospitalizations to COVID-19 nearly quadrupled from 242 on July 8, to 893 on July 28.
Health leaders said most of these new cases and hospitalizations had two things in common: they did not receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and they were comparatively younger than the cases they saw during the Summer 2020 surge.
"They're virtually all unvaccinated persons. Around 98 percent of them are unvaccinated," said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "They're younger than they used to be because more of the older persons in the community are vaccinated."
City of Knoxville
City officials said they are reviewing COVID-19 policies due to the increase in cases and "relatively stagnant vaccination numbers." The city began offering $100 payments to city employees who submitted proof of receiving the vaccine back in May, but does not offer such incentives for the city populous.
Officials with the Knox County government said Mayor Glenn Jacobs is not going to pull ARP funds to incentivize people to get COVID-19 vaccines. The county did not offer a reason why.
Fentress County leaders said they were working to learn more about before deciding whether to implement it.
Leaders in Hamblen County said they have yet to discuss providing vaccination incentives.
Officials said an advisory board overseeing funds from the American Rescue Plan would need to consider the proposal before they could provide incentives.
Mayor Gary Chesney said it was "highly unlikely" the city would pull ARP funds to offer financial incentives for people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. He did not provide a reason why.
Mayor E.L. Morton said he believed final guidance on what is and is not allowed under the Congressionally-approved American Rescue Plan was still pending, citing the Tennessee Comptroller's Office and saying Congress had the power of the purse (Congress passed the ARP in March 2021, including the $350 billion in aid).
The Tennessee Comptroller's Office website has disseminated guidance on allowable uses of ARP funds from the U.S. Treasury Department, which includes the federal fact sheet that was recently updated on July 19 that explicitly says state and local governments can use the aid to pay for vaccine incentive programs:
"Programs that provide incentives reasonably expected to increase the number of people who choose to get vaccinated, or that motivate people to get vaccinated sooner than they otherwise would have, are an allowable use of funds so long as such costs are reasonably proportional to the expected public health benefit."
Morton said he still encourages everyone to get vaccinated right now: "I am thankful we have a vaccine and encourage everyone to take it."
Mayor Buddy Bradshaw said he does not anticipate providing the incentives. He did not offer a reason why.
Mayor Jeff Tibbals said he began considering offering financial incentives for getting COVID-19 vaccines before the President's announcement. However, Tibbals said he has not received approval from the county commission yet, saying the process will begin the first week of August.