The incentives that the City of Bethel offers to encourage people arriving at the airport to be tested for COVID-19 may not be working all that well, but the city council has decided to renew the program anyway.
When you get off the plane in Bethel, you can get a gift card for a local business and a shot at winning $1,000 in a raffle. The only catch? You have to take a COVID-19 test at the airport. The program lapsed briefly, but the city council just voted to start it back up on Jan. 12.
When the city began the incentive program back in June 2020, they hoped that it would up the airport testing rate for passengers arriving in Bethel to 100%. But the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation said that incentives or no, the testing rate has hovered between 50% and 75% of passengers since testing began.
The program will run through Mar. 31 and will set the City of Bethel back $93,643. Before, the incentives were paid for with federal CARES Act funds.
During discussion, Council member Rose "Sugar" Henderson was initially hesitant to give those funds to a program that hadn’t been proven to work. City Manager Pete Williams response was that "comments we got from Y-K was that they really hadn't noticed an increase in the testing. Y-K’s recommendation was that it didn't didn't seem to be achieving its purpose."
But council member Alyssa Leary argued that just because testing numbers have been flat at the airport, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the program isn’t working at all. "Just because we weren't getting 100% of people passing through getting tested, I don't think that means the incentive program wasn't contributing to those numbers. Right now, I think more people are going to start traveling, and especially if we start having more flights, and I think that testing is still so important," said Leary.
Council members made it clear that they urge anyone eligible to get vaccinated. Council member Conrad "CJ" McCormick said, "when you evaluate the risks of taking the vaccine compared to the risks of having COVID-19, the risks that come with potentially something going wrong with the vaccine are so minuscule compared to the astronomical problems that come about with COVID-19."
Council members stressed that even though the vaccine is being given throughout the region, the Y-K Delta is not out of the woods just yet. The vaccine takes some time to do its work, and public health authorities are not yet sure whether vaccinated people can still be carriers of the virus.