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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Mary Lambert, the new Director of Community Health for the city of Chattanooga, walks a sign that reads "Free COVID Vaccinations No Appointment Required to the corner of Moss drive and through street, just outside of Eastdale Community Center on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Lambert has set up an initiative to provide free COVID-19 vaccines at Community and YFD centers across the city.

On Friday, there were 50 Tennessee children hospitalized because of COVID-19, according to state data.

Three months ago, there were only 10.

Friday, 13 children were hospitalized in intensive care.

Three months ago, only two.

Currently, more than half of Hamilton County remains unvaccinated.

Whatever column I write, it must begin with these words.

Our children's hospitals are full or filling because of COVID-19 and respiratory illnesses.

And less than half of us are vaccinated.

My mind, wanting to blame, will caricature the unvaccinated into selfish and misinformed.

Through this lens, anger begets more anger. It feels like our city is burning and your foot is on the waterline.

But what if this isn't entirely true?

What if the main source of our vaccination problem is not misinformation or selfishness ... but something else?

First, the big news. Last week, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly released his budget proposal; it's brave, or, at least, hints at an administration that may become brave.

City Hall will fund an unarmed team of social workers to respond to nonviolent calls for help. City Hall will increase salaries generously and justly. There's focus on the Black middle class, community centers, a new trade school. Our outdoors are prioritized; an Office of Community Health is funded.

So is Baby University.

"It was really clear this was having a transformative impact on people's lives," said Joda Thongnopnua, chief policy officer. (Thank you to all those who called and emailed City Hall.)

The budget is full of things to discuss, but, funny, I keep thinking about something else.

Vax 4 Cash.

It's City Hall's new plan. Anyone in Hamilton County over 18 who's fully vaccinated can register online — sweepstakes.chattanooga.gov — for a weekly raffle.

Vanna, what can folks win? $1,000. Free city parking. And, with the first raffle drawing this week, two airline tickets.

There's even a separate $500 raffle for those who get their first shot.

Last week, I entered the raffle.

But not for me.

If I win, I'll give every dime to the COVID-19 team at the health department.

I know City Hall's trying, but, this program feels wrong.

"Incentives do work," Kelly said.

Incentives?

It takes an off chance at winning $1,000 to convince someone to get vaccinated?

We've endured 18 months of human suffering and death. Isn't that incentive enough?

Give the money to other people.

Nurses. First responders. Teachers. Day care workers. Nursing home staff. Everyone at the health department. Elizabeth Forrester and Dawn Richards. Becky Barnes, who announced her retirement. (Thank you, Ms. Barnes, for all you've done to save lives in this county.)

Countless Chattanoogans have been working their ass off for 18 months to fight this virus. Their incentive? Duty. Love.

Pay them.

I feel like the older brother in the prodigal story: bitter and resentful. If this program works, so be it.

What if, instead, we paid everyone?

"Those who aren't yet vaccinated are much more likely to be food insecure, have children at home and earn little. About three-quarters of unvaccinated adults live in a household that makes less than $75,000 a year," writes Bryce Covert in the New York Times.

She continues:

"Those who are unvaccinated are also likely to work in essential jobs like agriculture and manufacturing that don't allow them to step away from work. They work long hours and may prioritize time with their families or communities when they finally get a break. People who have multiple jobs may find it impossible to schedule a shot in between all of their shifts," Covert writes.

Instead of a probably-won't-win raffle, pay everyone $100 per shot.

Make the incentive a guaranteed check, or gift card. Give them two days off work. Paid.

According to Covert, the issue isn't selfishness.

It's poverty.

That means we have a vaccination problem because we have a living wage problem in this city.

We have a vaccination problem because we have an affordable housing problem.

A food equity problem.

An education problem.

The real vaccination issue? It may not be misinformation.

But money.

...

Before he left office, mayor Andy Berke created a virtual memorial for COVID-19 victims and their families.

Let's make it permanent. Let's build a permanent COVID memorial.

"In honor and memory of lives lost, those who have and are still serving and more importantly for what God has done and is doing to restore us from this dilemma," Liz Cooper said.

Cooper is organizing to create this.

If you're interested, contact her at lizdawriter1@gmail.com.

Finally, I probably won't win the raffle. But I do have two Black Jacket Symphony tickets for Pink Floyd's The Wall at the Tivoli, Sept. 11. I'll gladly give them to an elementary school teacher, intensive care nurse or COVID first responder. Interested? Email me.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfree press.com.

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