$100 gift card for a COVID-19 vaccine? We'll take that, Minnesotans say

State parks passes, fishing licenses and Valleyfair tickets didn't do the trick.

But a $100 Visa gift card? Minnesota's latest COVID-19 vaccine incentive is proving far more popular.

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 12,200 newly vaccinated people had registered for the incentive since the claim form launched a day earlier. That's approaching the total number of people -- 17,409 -- who claimed a prize during Minnesota's smaller incentive push in June.

"More importantly, interest in this program coincides with an encouraging uptick in vaccine rates in the past week," said Devin Henry, a spokesman for the Minnesota Health Department.

While the latest offer runs through Aug. 15, half of the $2.5 million in available federal money is now spoken for. Gov. Tim Walz has said he would seek approval from state lawmakers or look to private organizations to increase the amount if needed.

Minnesota's vaccination rate has accelerated since bottoming out in mid-July. The seven-day average of new vaccinations is 5,226 a day, up from an average of 2,954 in the middle of last month.

Minnesota's vaccination rate ranks 15th in the country. Still, more than 1.5 million eligible people ages 12 and older have not yet gotten a shot.

The state is experiencing its fourth COVID wave. As of Thursday, 270 people are hospitalized with the virus, triple the number from mid-July. The state's seven-day average positivity rate is 4.2 percent, below the state's 5 percent concern threshold but steadily increasing for the past three weeks.

The increasing pace of vaccinations is a nationwide trend as the delta variant surges. Federal health officials point to vaccines as the best prevention measure.

"Universally, as we look at our hospitalizations and we look at our deaths, they are overwhelmingly unvaccinated people," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, told reporters.

HealthPartners became the latest Minnesota health system to tell its entire staff to get the vaccine by October. Nearly 75 percent of employees and 98 percent of clinicians are already vaccinated, a spokesman said. Allina Health and M Health Fairview announced similar moves earlier this week.

Thursday, Minnesota imposed a mask mandate on its 37,000-plus state employees when they're in the workplace. The rules apply indoors, plus outdoors when social distancing isn't feasible. Many state workers are still working from home, and the mandate doesn't apply to them.