Screenshot of the Ohio Vax-a-Million website.
When Ohio’s governor announced a first-in-the-nation vaccine sweepstakes, he acknowledged it might seem like a farfetched idea.
“Now I know that some of you now are shaking your head and saying, ‘That Mike DeWine, he’s crazy. This million dollar drawing idea of yours is a waste of money,’” he said during a public address.
Indeed, the Vax-A-Million program received mixed reviews from lawmakers and citizens alike. The final winners were announced on Wednesday evening, closing out a five-week lottery that produced an initial jolt in the vaccination rate that has stagnated of late.
‘A bad reality TV pitch’
The program debuted in mid-May as Ohio saw its COVID-19 case rate drop and with it the statewide vaccination rate. .
“We clearly have a lot more vaccine than we have demand,” DeWine said in early May.
The governor’s administration brainstormed ways to boost that demand and settled on a five-week vaccine lottery. He announced that vaccinated teens would be eligible to win a full-ride college scholarship, while vaccinated adults could win a million bucks. DeWine used federal COVID-19 relief dollars to pay for these prizes, promoting the lottery as a marketing campaign for the vaccine.
On the day he announced the Vax-A-Million, Ohio had a 42% vaccination rate — including 78% for those 65 years and older.
Reactions from the Statehouse were immediately critical. Republican lawmakers complained about taxpayer money being used to push Ohioans to get vaccinated and suggested the funding should go toward additional relief to small businesses.
Democrats, typically more supportive of the governor’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies, were just as disapproving. Various lawmakers called it a “stunt” and a “bad reality TV pitch.”
Shortly before the first drawing, state Rep. Jena Powell, R-Arcanum, got to work drafting legislation to halt the lottery drawings. More than two-dozen Republicans cosponsored her “Taxpayer Protection Against Frivolous Vaccine Lottery Act,” though the legislation never received a single committee hearing.
The rise and fall of Ohio's vaccination rate
State leaders offered no specific goals for the Vax-A-Million program. DeWine merely said it was meant to target Ohioans who generally planned to get vaccinated at some point but kept putting it off — maybe the possibility of winning big would do the trick.
The state did record a jump in the vaccination rate in the weeks following the Vax-A-Million rollout, The Ohio Capital Journal reported at the time.
This led at least 10 other governors to replicate the idea in their own states, from the “Vax and Scratch” lottery program in New York to the neighboring West Virginia raffling off cash prizes, trucks and guns.
“I can’t stand for Ohio to get ahead of us on anything,” Gov. Jim Justice was quoted as saying.
But new vaccinations waned after the first winners were announced on May 26. By the second week of June — as the third of five drawings were held — Ohio recorded its lowest vaccination rate in all of 2021 to that point.
DeWine made another public plea for Ohioans to get vaccinated amid the threat of hundreds of thousands of doses spoiling before being used.
Those who signed up for Vax-A-Million were eligible for all the subsequent drawings. As the program advanced, the week-to-week jump in new registrants diminished.
Hours before the final drawing on Wednesday, the Ohio Department of Health reported just 8,746 residents getting their first vaccine dose within the past 24 hours. The state has recorded daily counts of 10,000 or fewer throughout June, barely moving the needle in a state of more than 11,700,000 people.
In sum: 36.4% of Ohioans were fully vaccinated on May 12 went the vaccine lottery was first announced. That figure has improved to 43.5% as of Wednesday. Ohio continues to trail the national rate (45.8% fully vaccinated) and remains behind nearby states of Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The public health orders are rescinded and the gubernatorial press conferences are winding down. With the conclusion of the Vax-A-Million drawings, the DeWine administration continues to step back from its public-facing, day-to-day involvement in the battle against COVID-19.
“There comes a time when individual responsibility simply must take over,” DeWine said in the public address from May 12.
There are still more than 1,200 locations administering the COVID-19 vaccines in each of Ohio’s 88 counties.
For more information about the vaccine and to book an appointment, visit the Ohio Department of Health’s “Get the Shot” web page.
Jake Zuckerman contributed to this report.
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