Is "Vax for the Win" Going to Reel in California’s Vaccine Hesitant?

Carolyn V. Murray

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I know you must have heard by now. The state of California is following Ohio’s example and creating a lottery incentive to get more state residents vaccinated (Colorado and Oregon have also set up similar programs.)

The details of each state’s lottery vary: California is spreading the wealth a bit more than Ohio. There are ten big $1.5 million dollar winners and thirty $50,000 winners. To encourage those who haven’t had their first shot, two million $50 gift cards or grocery cards will be given away for those who begin the process after May 27.

And those who get a shot between May 28 and June 2 are eligible for a drawing for a pair of season tickets to the Los Angeles Kings or to the Los Angeles Galaxy. Everyone who has received at least one vaccine dose is automatically entered for the two top money prizes.

Lotteries do put a gleam in our eyes

Lotteries are popular in every state that holds them – no doubt about it. A lot of individuals who understand how terrible the odds are of winning and who will roll their eyes at the irrationality of buying a daily lottery ticket – even they will dart into a 7-11 when an unclaimed mega prize reaches a certain staggering level. Or they’ll make sure that they’re included in the office lottery pool because…you don’t want to be the only sucker in your department who’s left to grind out another thirty years at the office while everyone else has early retired with $12 million in their bank account.

Everyone’s eligible but the vaccine-hesitant are the real target

Only 54% of California residents have received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In late April, 400,000 vaccines were being administered daily. Now that’s down to 200,000. Those numbers indicate a large percentage of the population that is dragging their feet on a vaccine that they think they might take eventually or they have already decided against taking.

State officials generally see getting the maximum number of people vaccinated as key to putting COVID-19 behind us and ensuring that there is never a fifth wave or sixth wave in our future that could ever again lead to school and business closings.

This leads to the question of the best way to change the minds of the vaccine-hesitant. Is a big cash lottery going to be enough to do the trick?

Try not to cringe – this analogy may be a bit graphic…

I recall reading an illustration of how most of us are probably willing to do just about anything if the price is right. It was this: would you clean a filthy, filthy, filthy public toilet with your bare hands if someone offered you five dollars to do it? Most of us would laugh at that offer – few of us need five dollars that badly. What if the offer jumped to $50 – that’s a nice chunk of change. That’s a frugal week’s worth of groceries for one. A new item of clothing. Weekly pizza for a month. And yet, that offer would still get a hard pass from most of us.

But what if the offer was five million dollars, guaranteed, to spend fifteen minutes scrubbing out a disgusting toilet with our bare hands. Bartenders, bankers, professors, flight attendants…doesn’t matter – we would all do it! Gleefully, joyfully, without hesitation. What are fifteen minutes of unpleasantness compared to a lifetime of financial security? Most of us would spend that fifteen minutes daydreaming about taking a fabulous trip around the world or buying our dream house or dumping our soul-sucking job.

You get the point. We all have our price. And if getting the COVID-19 vaccine has been a distasteful, unappealing option, what will it take to make it worth your while? Is the remote possibility of riches going to do the trick? In other words, would you clean that toilet with your bare hands in order to only become eligible for a statewide drawing that tens of millions of people had entered, and for the chance to be one of ten people to win a million dollars or one of thirty to win $50,000? Clearly, there are only going to be forty happy people, out of millions.

That’s what lotteries are like – the odds are always ridiculously against you. But then, you don’t have to do anything terribly demanding to participate. Walk into a store and fork over a buck or two. Getting a vaccine when you’re not that keen on getting one is a much harder decision. I’m guessing the unlikely possibility of a big reward might not be as persuasive as the higher likelihood of a smaller reward.

Spread the wealth a lot further

Personally, I would have structured the prizes a lot differently. There is $116.5 million dollars allocated to this lottery incentive. The gift cards are a nice touch, but I’d be surprised if they were to change a lot of minds. Essentially there are just forty big winners. But wouldn’t it be more motivating if there were 600,000?

Disneyland. That’s my big idea. I’ve been five times and most of those were paid for by an employer. Otherwise, those lovely days at the park would have been unaffordable. How much will a day at Disneyland set you back – about $110 to 150 and that’s before food. There are many California families who can’t afford the hefty $800 cost of a day at the park for a family of four. What if the lottery prizes were a free ticket to Disneyland (and maybe a $30 food voucher for good measure?)

AND what if these prizes weren’t all allocated by a drawing – what if half the tickets went to a general lottery, in order to include those who got early vaccines. And the other half were given away, guaranteed, to the next 300,000 who got their first vaccine? There would be a stampede. And for those who missed out on the guaranteed giveaway, they’d still have the consolation of getting into the general lottery.

By the way, if you’re not a fan of Disneyland, then substitute the option of Lakers tickets or some other $200 equivalent temptation.

Would it work? I can only offer myself as an example.

I have a confession

I’ve never gotten the flu vaccine, although I’ve certainly seen my share of public service messages for it throughout the years. I’ve actually gotten the flu once and it knocked me down hard for three days. But one case of the flu in fifty-eight years – it just didn’t seem like a big enough threat to warrant a shot (I’m no fan of needles.) Now, if there had been a vaccine for bronchitis, which I’ve gotten half a dozen times and always lasts for a minimum of two months, then I would have gotten an annual shot, gladly.

We all just need the right kind of persuasion

Even now, while I’ve become much more aware of the high fatalities of every flu season, I still don’t have a strong inclination to get one. But, as an L.A. resident, if I had ever been offered a free ticket to Disneyland for getting a flu vaccine…I would have been first in line. I’m guessing it would have been a very long line. With the right incentives, it’s possible that a lot of vaccine hesitancy can be overcome.

But I’m not in charge and the top-heavy lottery will proceed. Because I want to put the pandemic behind us, I can only cross my fingers and hope that Vax for the Win turns into a huge success.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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