In early June — among the first of its kind for Texas counties — the Milam County Commissioners Court approved a $250 incentive for young people 12 to 17 years old who get fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Since then, the county Health Department has run more than more than 30 clinics and vaccinated more than 160 youngsters.
It intends to run a lot more.
County Judge Steve Young said the idea for the incentive came to him after seeing how states, counties, cities, businesses and health districts across the country were offering lottery prizes, trips, gift cards, beer, popsicles, hot dogs, french fries, doughnuts and even Dairy Queen ice cream cones to adults who got vaccinated.
In Texas, Harris County was offering some of the biggest incentives to teens: 10 scholarships worth $5,000 each to attend public colleges or trade and vocational schools.
In Milam County, which is in east Central Texas, the commissioners set aside $600,000 of the county’s $4.8 million in American Rescue Plan funds to pay for the program. The county has about 2,400 students in the 12-17 age group. Young said he picked adolescents because the vaccine can keep them safe, let them avoid quarantining, keep them in school — especially since remote learning did not work for everyone — and protect teachers and administrators.
However, the initiative has been met with some resistance. "A lot of people say horrible things about vaccinations," Young said, adding that a small but vocal group has accused the county of bribing kids and parents. He hopes the $250 is the "little nudge" that will encourage people to get their middle and high schoolers vaccinated – and return life in the county to some semblance of normalcy.
The pandemic and subsequent shutdown were a "train wreck" for the county, Young said. When businesses and schools shuttered, the loss of income cascaded through the economy.
Young hopes the vaccine incentive can help compensate people for any lost time from work or help pay for back-to-school shopping. He cites the example of a woman with four teen students who had already decided to get the shots so their grandparents would be protected. The $1,000 she would receive was an added bonus.
Despite the naysayers, Young and the county Health Department continue to encourage vaccinations to help keep the county’s 25,000 residents safe. He said if residents want a shot, the Health Department will come to their homes or businesses to administer doses. "We’re doing everything we can do," he said.
The push to inoculate gained additional urgency in July as the more contagious delta variant of the virus made its first appearance in the county, which was at about 45% herd immunity. At that time, the Health Department also started to see a surge in cases and had reported its first four COVID-19 deaths since this past April.
Even before the vaccine was available to his county, Young was urging residents to get inoculated. By the time it became available, the county had a waiting list of 5,000 people. The county judge had high praise for the volunteers, including nurses and doctors, who helped at immunization clinics.
In the end, the program isn’t about politics; it’s about health and safety, Young said. And he will continue to push vaccinations to protect the well-being and livelihoods of the county’s residents. "I know in my heart that it’s the right thing to do."
Visit www.county.org for information and resources on the American Rescue Plan and COVID-19.