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Ohio's Vaccine Lottery Proves An Effective Incentive


When Ohio's COVID-19 vaccination rate was plateauing, state officials realized they needed a new incentive. Enter Vax-a-Million. Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow has more.

ANDY CHOW, BYLINE: Ohio's new weekly lottery broadcast had all the flash of the typical Wednesday night drawing, where they usually announce the winning numbers of the Mega Millions or Powerball jackpot.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good evening, and welcome to the Vax-a-Million Giveaway where we will...

CHOW: But this time, instead of buying a lotto ticket, you only need a vaccination. The first drawing capped two weeks of buzz that started when Governor Mike DeWine said he was creating a $1 million lottery for anyone 18 and older who's vaccinated. A second lottery is for a full-ride college scholarship for those ages 12 to 17. DeWine was trying to jumpstart a sluggish vaccination rate in Ohio.


MIKE DEWINE: Some of you are now shaking your head and say, that Mike DeWine, he's crazy. This million-dollar drawing idea of yours is a waste of money. But truly, the real waste is a life that is lost now to COVID-19.

CHOW: Crazy or not, the gimmick seems to be working. And the week after the lottery was announced, vaccinations soared 55% for residents ages 20 to 49. But it was almost off the chart for those in the 16 to 17 age group, which saw a 94% jump. Still, in the state House, some, like Republican Senator Niraj Antani, criticized DeWine's plan, saying the $5 million in federal relief funds would be better spent elsewhere.


NIRAJ ANTANI: A lottery idea isn't a bad one. Using taxpayer dollars - probably not something that we should be doing.

CHOW: Abbey Bugenske was the first million-dollar winner. The recent college grad was on her way to buy a used car when she got the news. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Joseph Costello was the first winner of the full-ride scholarship. His mother, Colleen, says the lottery encouraged them to vaccinate sooner than later.

COLLEEN COSTELLO: We were excited about the opportunity, and it definitely influenced our decision to get it in the timeframe that we got it.

CHOW: Ohio's vaccine lottery has sparked a national conversation over sweepstakes. Some states, like Maryland and Delaware, are offering smaller cash prizes but with more drawings. California has announced a lottery gambit totaling more than $116 million in giveaways. Kevin Bennett teaches psychology at Penn State University and says a lottery has a certain allure that can change human behavior.

KEVIN BENNETT: We're attracted to them because we tend to overestimate small percentages. Therefore, we like the idea of a small chance at winning a very large number, a million dollars or more. We actually prefer that over a small reward that is just guaranteed. So there's something about taking that risk.

CHOW: While there are legal attempts to force the state to drop the sweepstakes, Ohio is still scheduled to hold four more Vax-a-Million drawings.

For NPR News, I'm Andy Chow in Columbus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.

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