Ohio’s Lottery for Vaccinated People Is Pure Bribery — and It’s Brilliant

Protection against illness and death should be enough to convince people to roll up their sleeves. But since it isn’t, let’s bring on the gimmicks.

Credit: Yulia Reznikov/Getty Images

“You can’t win if you don’t play!”

“Odds are, you’ll have fun!”

These are slogans I knew growing up, along with a 7:30 pm prohibition on any child-made sound as the Ohio Pick-3 aired on TV. My dad would strategize, consult tattered books listing previous winning numbers, carefully choose his number combination, and lay out a dollar or two he’d almost always lose. But he won enough to keep him interested, betting his luck might change.

There’s a certain brilliance in Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s “Vax-a-Million” announcement. Over the next five weeks, each week a $1 million dollar winner will be selected from Ohio’s voter registration database. To be eligible, a person must be 18 or older, live in Ohio, and be vaccinated against Covid-19 before the drawing. A scholarship drawing is opening up too for kids 12 to 17 years old. Each week, one vaccinated student who registers will win a four-year scholarship that covers tuition, room, board, and books.

I grew up with someone who played and lost the lottery almost every day. I understand how much allure there is in any chance to win big.

Ohio is a state with plenty of need — our child poverty rate is 15th highest nationwide. (One could make a pretty strong argument that would be an ideal investment of these funds.) It’s also a state where Ohio lottery revenue totaled $4.15 billion in 2018. That’s not to correlate a low-income population with lottery ticket sales, but to note this is a state where a lot of people could use extra cash and the standard state lottery is popular already.

For those who have up until now been vaccine-hesitant, Vax-a-Million could prove to be a valuable enough incentive. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has said the U.S. could return to a semblance of normalcy by fall if 70 to 85% of adults are vaccinated by summer. He’s also said in an interview for The Daily, “Forget this issue of herd immunity, and just get as many people vaccinated as you possibly can, as quickly as you can.” While many experts now doubt we can actually reach herd immunity, with enough people vaccinated, we will have better odds of seeing infections go down and avoiding the hospitalizations and deaths that could buckle our healthcare system. As reporter Apoorva Mandavilli summarized, “herd immunity is not an off/on switch. It’s a continuum… and we are somewhere along that path.” The closer we get, the safer the world for all of us.

Ohio has plenty of challenges — from a bill to bar “controversial subjects” (such as race) from schools to our former state speaker being indicted for a $60 million racketeering conspiracy allegedly involving state officials. But since the state legislature has given itself the power to soon rescind public health orders anyway, Governor DeWine only has so much time left to make sweeping decisions to shift the state’s pandemic response. So, he seems to be betting on a lottery in which we all collectively win.

The Ohio Lottery’s slogan today, “Take a Chance on Education,” points to the large sums directed to the state’s Lottery Profits Education fund ($1.153 billion in 2019). It’s window-dressing on gambling that I typically feel the urge to eye-roll. I know from experience how much money someone can waste on the lottery. The promise of the win feels so real, it’s easy to exploit.

But now, with the Vax-a-Million, my moral compass points directly toward Exploit Away! If this incentive could coax more people into getting the vaccine, and bring us closer, if not to herd immunity, to some semblance of collective safety, get in on the game! Get those vaccines. Heck, I hope more people register to vote too just hoping to be on the list.

Do these incentives, sometimes described as “bribes” work? In Erie County, New York, the promise of free beer resulted in ten times the number of people in just a few hours coming for their first vaccine dose than twelve hours at a standard clinic. Budweiser, Krispy Kreme, Junior’s Cheesecake, Nathan’s Hot Dogs, and other companies are offering freebies for those who get the vax.

Should the social obligation to protect one another compel people to get a quick shot to end this thing? Yes. Does it? Not for enough people. But would you like a free donut with that? A million dollars? A full-ride for your kid?

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped into Target and the cashier was an older man with grey sprouting in an unruly way across his head. His mask was slung under his nose. I am now fully vaccinated but kept my distance as I moved along the shielded aisle. But I noticed an “I got vaccinated” sticker on his vest and assumed — because why else would someone be lax about their mask — that he must be fully vaccinated. My own vaccine-eager brain jumped to a wild assumption: maybe he’d saved the sticker since March when his age group would have been eligible, and he was using it to encourage others to get vaccinated.

I thanked him for wearing it, and he immediately told me how he always gets his other vaccines, flu shot, tetanus boosters. “I thought I might as well get another hole in the arm.” As he started explaining the drive-thru clinic he’d been to, he made it clear he’d gotten the vaccine just that morning. Despite his other vaccines, he’d delayed this one for reasons he didn’t explain in detail.

A program at work had gotten his attention though.

“Target offered us four hours pay just to get it,” he told me in a sly undertone. I recognized the glee in his eyes. It’s the look my father gets when he’s able to double a coupon on a sale item. It’s the look of sheer, joyous victory the times he has actually won the Pick-3.

Part of me wants to go back to Target and find that cashier and make sure he knows he could also now win a million bucks just to make sure he gets his second dose — though Target will also be paying him for his time for that too, as I understand it.

DeWine is coming under fire for spending federal Covid rescue dollars in this way, but he said he expected criticism and also believes the best way to fight the virus is to get people vaccinated.

I absolutely cannot grasp why the promise of a time of near-normalcy, safe time with family, avoiding (much as we can) the threat of illness and death are not enough to convince such a broad segment of the population to roll up their sleeves. If this works, if we see a spike in people getting vaccinated, I don’t have to understand their initial vaccine hesitancy. I can just enjoy an increased population of people around me coaxed, bribed, treated — I don’t care what you call it — helping protect all of us.

And that will be vital, because mixed in with his Vax-a-Million announcement, DeWine also said that by June 2, all pandemic health orders except those for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities will lift in our state. “There comes a time when individual responsibility simply must take over,” he said in his announcement. This pandemic, for all its fear and hardship, has also been a time in which we’ve had to grapple with how little power we each have over other people’s choices, but I hope sweetening the pot gives all of us better odds that people might be inclined to make the right choice.

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com

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