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Turns out the chance of winning a million bucks may be a decent vaccination incentive

The banner on Ohio’s “Vax-a-Million” page. (Ohio Vax-a-Million/State of Ohio)

Part of the coronavirus relief bill passed earlier this year provided funding to states that could be used for vaccination programs. The state of Ohio decided to do something unexpected with that money: Last week, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced that any adult who had been vaccinated could enter a lottery to win 1 of 5 $1 million jackpots. On Tuesday, the state’s website for the “Vax-a-Million” contest went live.

Before I get into the point of this article, I need to expound briefly on a rather surreal part of that website. It’s styled like a lottery website, as the name might suggest, with lots of flashy graphics and links to extensive qualification rules. And, in keeping with that aesthetic, a warning at the bottom of the page:

“If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, help is available. Call the Ohio Problem Gambling Helpline 24/7 at 1-800-589-9966.”

I absolutely understand why it’s useful to offer help to those who have gambling addictions. I understand, too, why warnings like the one above are included on state lottery tickets or other collateral. It’s just sort of hard to wrap one’s head around how addiction works in this particular case. You can go bankrupt playing Powerball. I’m not sure how that manifests in a scenario where the entry requirement is getting a shot in your arm.

Regardless, state data suggest that the proposal has had the intended effect, at least to a degree. The seven-day average number of Ohioans getting their first shots increased the day after DeWine’s announcement and continued heading up through Sunday. It’s worth noting that this happened while the number of vaccinations nationally remained flat, suggesting that the trend in Ohio was driven by something different. It’s also worth pointing out that the number of Ohioans completing their vaccinations continued to slip lower, again reinforcing that these were people newly seeking out the vaccine. (In two or three weeks it will be interesting to see if more people are completing their vaccinations.)

As CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy pointed out on Twitter, it’s somewhat amazing that a 1-in-a-million chance of winning $1 million* provided a spur for Ohioans to go out and get a shot that, you know, avoiding serious illness couldn’t. But, then, whatever works.

It’s useful to consider the broader context here. That uptick in cases recently appears to be real (orange circle below), but it’s also only a subtle reversal of the state’s downward trend.

According to state data, there’s a long way to go before Ohio reaches a level of vaccination that approaches herd immunity. Only about 43 percent of Ohioans have received a dose, a figure that will need to almost double to reach a saturation level beyond which the virus can’t easily spread.

As a former student at Ohio State, allow me to offer a different incentive. According to Washington Post data, the density of vaccination in Ohio is about three percentage points lower than the state of Michigan. Are we to believe that the Buckeyes can trounce the Wolverines over and over and over and over again in football, but trail Michigan on this equally important metric?

That’s what should be at the Vax-a-Million site: an Ohio vs. Michigan tracker. Unlike in football, the state can’t count on Michigan to have been wildly overrated coming into this contest.

* To date, 5 million vaccinations have been started. Five $1 million awards will be given out; hence, 1-in-a-million.