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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Can $1 million prizes or free cars jumpstart Michigan COVID vaccine rates?

vaccine card and money
Ohio said it saw a jump in COVID vaccinations after it began offering the chance to win one of five $1 million payouts for those getting shots. Could Michigan duplicate that success? (Shutterstock)

Leaders in New York, Maryland, Ohio and even Bay County in Michigan, are turning to the lure of lottery cash and cars to jumpstart flagging vaccination efforts.

The question is whether Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration is willing to offer eye-catching financial rewards to get more Michiganders to take their shots — and whether such incentives work.

Last week, Whitmer said state law precludes the creation of a vaccine lottery, such as being done in Ohio, but she added that the state is looking into other incentives. She offered no details and none were forthcoming from her administration.

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Since hitting a peak of nearly 400,000 first-dose vaccinations the week ending April 10, the state has seen a troublesome decline, dropping 19 to 32 percent each week. In the week ending May 15, just 118,000 vaccines were recorded in Michigan. 

The drop dampened the chances of hitting Whitmer’s goal of vaccinating 70 percent of adults; University of Michigan researchers now estimate the state will never hit 70 percent of adults 16 and older.

State leaders across the country who have experienced similar drops are now trying unconventional incentives.

Forget free donuts or beer — Ohio trumped all of those when Gov. Mike DeWine announced May 12 that the state would be awarding five $1 million prizes in a drawing for residents who get vaccinated. Younger residents, meanwhile, can qualify for a chance to get a free college education.

 

Other states have followed suit:

  • New York created “Vax and Scratch” last week. Those who get vaccinated at one of 10 mass vaccination clinics will get a $20 scratch off ticket that has a $5 million top prize.
  • In Maryland, the state is giving away $40,000 a day among those getting vaccinated, with a chance one of them will be eligible for $400,000 on July 4.
  • Oregon started it’s “Take your shot” $1 million lottery last week. There are also five winners of $100,000 for college. And every county in the state will have a separate $10,000 winner.

Oregon, Ohio and Maryland are working with their respective state lotteries to administer the giveaways. Michigan’s Lottery Commission declined comment on whether Michigan could impose a similar offer, telling Bridge Michigan that any future updates will come from Whitmer’s office.

Do incentives work?

After months of residents scrambling for a limited supply of COVID vaccines, rates are declining in much of the country. A good share of people are hesitant to get a vaccine — with up to 25 percent of the population saying they remain unsure. That raises questions about whether cash or car incentives will work. (There’s little doubt the vaccines do.)

But Ohio said it has seen a steep increase in vaccinations in the wake of announcing $1 million prizes, though some of the overall increase is because 12-15 year olds became eligible for the vaccine.

In Wood County, a rural county in northwestern Ohio, the announcement drove a 68 percent increase in vaccinations — among those 16 and older — over the previous two weeks, said Benjamin Robison, health commissioner for the county. And rates had been falling there, he said. 

“I think we’re at the point where the conventional strategies for vaccinating people … are not working,” Robison told Bridge Michigan. He supports taking dramatic steps to invigorate vaccine efforts. “It certainly got the conversation started on the vaccine,” he said. 

A Michigan county went smaller, with smaller results. 

In Bay County, a number of local businesses and foundations pooled about $18,500 worth of prizes, including a two-year lease of a car. 

The incentives didn’t generate as much interest in the vaccine as hoped, said Joel Stracz, the county health officer. He said the county did about 300 vaccinations over the three-day blitz that ended Saturday, about a third of what they had hoped.

“I just wish it would have been better,” he said. About 56 percent of the county’s adults 16 and older have at least one dose, compared to 58.9 percent statewide.

Still, Stracz said, he supports efforts to draw more people to the vaccines. 

“If (I was) the governor I would have her talk to businesses to put it together. I think if you talked to a few interested businesses … she could do this,” Stracz said.

 

The Whitmer administration has said little about offering incentives beyond citing the health benefits: You’re far less likely to get seriously sick from COVID-19 if you get the vaccine.

Bobby Leddy, a spokesperson for Whitmer, said the state encourages everyone to get the vaccines so they can safely enjoy the company of family and friends and hinted the state is thinking of additional carrots.

“We applaud Michigan businesses for stepping up to provide fun incentives to those Michiganders who have received a vaccine,” he said. “We're always thinking of innovative ways to encourage Michiganders to get vaccinated, and are reviewing our options at this time.”

Incentives worth gamble

Some critics contend lotteries are “coercive” and pervert a critical health decision that should be made without the dangling of cash.

But advocates say the vaccine, which has been proven safe and wildly effective, is worth the gamble.

Now that Whitmer has signalled that widespread mitigation measures like masks, social distancing and capacity restrictions on businesses will be pared back June 1 and dropped completely on July 1, public officials say it is even more imperative to focus on pushing vaccinations to protect people.

“I think full force incentives should be implemented across the board... We need to be all in to get vaccinated, period,” said Eric Pessell, health officer in Calhoun County in southwestern Michigan.

The low-hanging fruit — those who were enthusiastic about getting the vaccine — has been picked. Stracz said it’s now time to “shake the tree” to get those who may be willing but have hesitated.

And shaking the tree might mean loosening the purse strings like Ohio, Oregon and other states have done, he said, to get the attention of those who so far have not gotten the vaccine.

“We knew that point was going to come,” Stracz said. “We didn’t know it was going to happen so soon.”

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