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Ohio's Vaccine Lottery Proves An Effective Incentive

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.