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Recent college grad wins a million dollars for getting vaccinated in Ohio

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine at a coronavirus briefing last year. (Andrew Welsh Huggins/AP)
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It was a million-dollar idea: Give every Ohio resident who gets a coronavirus vaccine a chance to win a seven-figure check.

That audacious scheme to boost the state’s inoculation rate became reality Wednesday evening, when the first winners of the “Vax-a-Million” drawings were announced on live TV. Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has won national acclaim — and drawn local blowback — since unveiling the plan, which will award $1 million to five vaccinated adults and a full-ride scholarship to Ohio public colleges to five vaccinated teenagers.

The first broadcast lasted just 60 seconds, but it changed the lives of the two winners: Abbigail Bugenske, who lives near Cincinnati, won the $1 million draw; and Joseph Costello, a resident of the Dayton area, took home the scholarship.

“I can’t believe it,” Karen Bugenske, Abbigail’s grandmother, told The Washington Post after the announcement. She had no idea her granddaughter had won — until reporters began calling.

“I kept saying, ‘Stop, this is a scam,’" she said. ”It’s, what, a million? No, you don’t mean a million, you mean a thousand. ... Wow, this is unbelievable."

The lottery is part of a nationwide effort to encourage hesitant Americans to get their shots, a project that has taken on more urgency with the pace of vaccination slowing across the country and more states lifting their pandemic-era restrictions. About half the U.S. population has received at least one dose, but the average number of shots administered per day has fallen about 36 percent in the past month to 1.75 million.

In Ohio, 45 percent of residents have received at least one dose, a metric that slightly lags behind the nation overall. But officials insist the state would be in a worse place without DeWine’s high-profile giveaway initiative. Five days after its rollout, the Ohio Department of Health said the campaign had driven a 28 percent increase in the vaccination rate of those 16 and older.

However, in the past week, the state’s overall vaccination rate has fallen by about 2 percent.

But DeWine has called the plan a success, citing especially high increases in vaccine uptake among some of the youngest eligible Ohioans.

“We’re more than happy with the results,” he said at a news conference this week. “This was just so important to our future as a state, our immediate future and our long-term future. Having more people vaccinated really allows us to get back to normal.”

It’s unclear whether Bugenske or Costello, who could not be reached for comment directly, sought vaccines because of the lottery. But Bugenske, an engineer and recent college graduate, urged her grandmother — who is in her 70s and lives in Michigan — to get the shot as soon as she became eligible.

“She encouraged me all the time to get it,” said Karen Bugenske, who added that she had never been opposed to the vaccine, but “wasn’t in any hurry for it.”

“I would’ve gotten it,” she said, “but they wanted me to get it yesterday.”

In the end, she got both her Moderna shots and called her granddaughter with the good news.

The Biden administration has applauded Ohio’s lottery. At a Tuesday briefing, the White House’s senior adviser on the coronavirus response, Andy Slavitt, singled out the program and its champion.

“Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has unlocked a secret: People do care about getting vaccinated, but it turns out they also have other things they care about,” he said.

In the weeks since West Virginia announced it would give $100 savings bonds to young people who get inoculated, the government-sponsored incentives have flowed like complimentary booze. In New Jersey and D.C., officials have offered a novel twist on the dive bar favorite, “beer and a shot” combo: a free drink with every vaccine shot.

Beer, bouquets and free rounds at a gun range: How local governments promote vaccines

In Memphis, the vaccinated could win a new car, and at a southern Illinois shooting and recreation complex, anyone who gets a shot at a mobile vaccination unit will receive 100 free targets of trap, skeet or sporting clays. Other states, such as Maryland and Oregon, have launched lotteries of their own. The Treasury Department has said states are allowed to use federal coronavirus relief funds for lotteries or other incentive programs.

“People may say all of this is frivolous,” Slavitt said. “I say anything that ends the pandemic, it’s time for us to pull out.”

Ohio will announce its first two winners at 7:29 p.m. Wednesday, the first of five pairs who will be chosen every week through June 23. DeWine said that nearly 2.8 million state residents had registered for the lottery, a little more than half of Ohioans who have received at least one shot and are eligible. The state lottery agency conducted the inaugural drawing on Monday using a random number generator and spent the following two days verifying the winners.

The campaign and DeWine himself have won plaudits from the editorial boards of two of the state’s largest newspapers. The Toledo Blade called it “a bold and smart choice.”

“It’s shocking and quirky and quite likely to be the one thing he’s most remembered for,” the paper’s editorial said.

And the Columbus Dispatch said it “might just be a genius move.”

But state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized the governor and have characterized the lottery as a cheesy waste of public funds.

The Ohio House’s top Democrat, Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, said that “using millions of dollars in relief funds in a drawing is a grave misuse of money that could be going to respond to this ongoing crisis.”

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State Rep. Jena Powell (R), who has been critical of DeWine’s pandemic policies, drafted legislation that would halt the lottery, which she has called “frivolous” and a “PR stunt.”

At his Monday news conference, DeWine rattled off the numbers of people who enrolled in the giveaway before arriving at a data point that he said shows something else the state has gained from the Vax-a-Million lottery: an estimated $15 million in free media mentions.

Karin Brulliard contributed to this report.