DeWine's Unconventional Vaccine Lottery Could Be Smart, and Even Thrifty, Public Policy


Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine
  • Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine
All Coronavirus health orders except those that pertain to nursing homes and assisted living facilities will be lifted on June 2, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced in a special press event Wednesday evening. That includes statewide mask mandates.

DeWine made the decision to lift the orders under immense political pressure. He can expect a vicious primary challenge from the right next year, and his opponents can be counted upon to use the Governor's health orders as a central campaign talking point.

But demand for vaccinations in Ohio has plummeted. Right now, the state is only using about 20% of its federal allotment of doses, and vaccinations sites across the state are reducing their operations in response to dwindling demand. 

To incentivize vaccinations, DeWine made a much more titillating announcement Wednesday. All Ohioans who have received at least their first vaccination dose by May 26 will be eligible for a weekly $1 million lottery. A name will be selected at random from a state database of vaccinated Ohioans, and one winner per week over the course of five weeks will walk away with a life-changing sum. 

All children over the age of 12 are now eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine as well, and DeWine said that to incentivize vaccinations among teenagers, they would be entered into a lottery of their own: for a full ride four-year college scholarship to an Ohio university.

The incentives have already drawn criticism, largely on grounds that they're a misallocation of taxpayer dollars. DeWine said that though the Ohio lottery would conduct the drawings, the winnings would be paid from federal coronavirus relief funds. 

Direct cash payments for vaccinations would be preferred, especially because many of the Ohioans who haven't been vaccinated are hourly and low-wage workers who are unable to take paid time off to get the shot and deal with potential side effects.

“It’s a hesitancy issue but it’s also an access issue. If you can’t miss a day of work, that’s a reason you cannot access a vaccine,” said Kate Warren, whose research for the Center for Community Solutions found a strong correlation between low-wage hourly work and vaccine hesitancy.

But recognizing that some amount of money will be spent to promote vaccinations, especially among those who have been disinclined to get it already, the lottery idea could be a very smart, and thrifty, incentive.

Ohioans love the lottery, and the prospect of winning $1 million — though remote — is likely more intoxicating than the prospect of winning $10,000 or even $50,000. If DeWine had said that 500 vaccinated Ohioans would be entered into a drawing for $10,000, would that generate more or less vaccinations? It's hard to say. But it's certainly true that the unconventional sweepstakes idea has generated more headlines and social media buzz in 12 hours than virtually any pandemic-related news item to date. That's a ton of free publicity that will encourage people to get the shot. And that's the goal.

Lotteries are of course cruel taxes that are primarily levied on the poor, but in this case, Ohio's vaccine lottery could be a win-win.

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