Don’t roll your eyes at Ohio’s vaccine lottery

At the pandemic’s start, all governors faced a question: How do you make decisions without a road map?

By

Opinion

May 28, 2021 - 2:40 PM

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine held his weekly Coronavirus briefing at the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University in Cleveland on Tuesday afternoon, April 27, 2021.

At the pandemic’s start, all governors faced a question: How do you make decisions without a road map?

My approach to the pandemic reflects what I’ve learned in over 40 years of public service. Throughout my career, I have made my share of mistakes. They usually come from not seeking out experts in the field and not following my instinct.

So, as the pandemic has evolved, I have consulted frequently with current and former governors, local health commissioners in Ohio, mayors and other elected officials. Our team has sought advice from medical and scientific experts in Ohio and across the country.

Those conversations informed some tough early decisions: In early March 2020 we ordered the closure of the Arnold Sports Festival before a single coronavirus case was confirmed in Ohio. Ohio was also the first state to announce the closure of schools for in-person learning. These choices seem obvious now, but at that time we were guided only by the question, How many people will die if we don’t do this?

‘The decision to create Vax-a-Million, which is a chance for vaccinated adults to win one of five $1 million prizes and for vaccinated 12-to-17-year-olds to win one of five full-ride scholarships to any Ohio state college or university, came about like those other pandemic decisions: out of necessity.’

The decision to create Vax-a-Million, which is a chance for vaccinated adults to win one of five $1 million prizes and for vaccinated 12-to-17-year-olds to win one of five full-ride scholarships to any Ohio state college or university, came about like those other pandemic decisions: out of necessity.

My wife, Fran, and I had visited over 40 vaccination sites across the state, talking to Ohioans about what persuaded them to get the shot. Many couldn’t wait to get vaccinated. Others were so opposed that we had no hope of convincing them. There was a third group that did not have strong feelings about the vaccine. Many people were just not in a hurry. This was the group where I knew we had an opportunity.

In mid-April, vaccine supply in Ohio started exceeding demand. There was a striking — and scary — drop in vaccinations. People were tired. They wanted their lives back. The vaccines were our pathway out, yet fewer and fewer were getting them. Every day I asked my staff, “What else can we do?”

During a brainstorming session at the end of April, we discussed a number of ideas, including gift cards, direct payments and free tickets to sporting events. My chief adviser, Ann O’Donnell, who has been with me since my time in Congress, hesitantly suggested the idea of a lottery. She almost didn’t mention it because of its seeming absurdity. “This is kind of a wacky idea but ….”

The group discussed it, but we quickly moved on. In the moment it felt so unconventional, and we had other ideas to consider.

Over the next few days, however, I kept coming back to it. We needed something aspirational to generate excitement and motivate those on the fence to get vaccinated now.

I thought about how much money the country had already spent fighting the virus, including millions of dollars in health care costs, the lost productivity and the lost lives. Frankly, the lottery idea would cost a fraction of that — about $5.6 million, according to our estimates.

I remembered a quote from Bill Veeck, the former Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox owner: “To give one can of beer to a thousand people is not nearly as much fun as to give 1,000 cans of beer to one guy.”

I was convinced that the excitement of people talking for weeks about who would be next to win a million dollars would significantly increase vaccinations.

We decided to stretch out the five drawings, figuring that each time a winner is revealed, it would lead to more enthusiasm and more vaccinations. Children ages 12 to 15 had just become eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, so we added a full, four-year college scholarship. The first drawing winners were announced on Wednesday. More winners will be announced each Wednesday, and vaccination records will be verified for winners.

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