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Are Lotteries An Effective Strategy To Boost Vaccination Rates?

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is banking on the million-dollar lottery to ramp up the number of people who get vaccinated in Ohio. But will a lottery incentivize people who are on the fence about the COVID-19 vaccine? Statehouse correspondent Andy Chow talked to several experts in the field of economics and psychology who sound off on how lotteries impact social behavior.

The announcement of a $1 million lottery in Ohio sparked national and worldwide buzz. 

The state is hoping the allure of a one-million cash prize is enough to get unvaccinated Ohioans to go out and get the COVID-19 shot.  

But will it work?

Jay Corrigan, a professor of economics at Kenyon College, ran a study on how much money a student would want to get paid in order to get the flu shot last year, what they found is that cash incentives can work. 

"So these were not the students who were most eager to get vaccinated. Still, we found that ninety five percent of them would get the shot in exchange for one hundred dollars or less, and that three quarters would get the shot in exchange for ten dollars or less. So that tells us that cash incentives, even relatively modest ones, can have a big impact on vaccination rates." 

But Ohio isn't handing out money, it's running a lottery sweepstakes, which Kevin Bennett, says can make a difference. 

Bennett, a teaching professor of psychology at the Penn State University Beaver Campus, has studied the social science and human behavior behind lotteries and found there's a certain allure that draws people into playing a game with the odds stacked against them. 

"We're attracted to them because we tend to overestimate small percentages. Therefore, we like the idea of a small chance at winning a very large number, a million dollars or more. We actually prefer that over a small reward that is just guaranteed. So there's something about taking that risk and there's this illusion of control that some people have playing lottery. If they pick their own numbers, they feel like they have a better chance." 

Since Gov. Mike DeWine announced the Ohio Vax-A-Million sweepstakes there has been a notable bump in the state's vaccination rate. However, that increase can also reflect the state broadening eligibility for ages 12-17. 

Eileen Anderson-Fye is an associate professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine who studies the ethics and decision making behind public health scenarios.  

She says encouraging behavior that can benefit population health is a constant battle because people can fall into several different categories for why they will or will not get vaccinated.  

That's why, according to Anderson-Fye, it's important for officials to come up with a variety of ways to encourage people to get the vaccine.  

"So from a public health perspective, if we want to get a population vaccinated, we need to use kind of every single tool in the arsenal to do it So money and the chance of gaining some money or in the case of younger Ohioans, education, paid education, you know, that's it. It makes sense to bring that to the table. And we know from the regular lottery and from lots of other types of information that people love that kind of intermittent reward where we might just win. You know, probably we won't. But it might be me. Why not me? Right." 

There was a consensus among the psychology and human behavior experts that the lottery does have the potential to drive up numbers among certain people who were not already swayed by public service announcements or other accessibility programs. 

"I would love to think that this is going to take a lot of people who were on the fence who perhaps weren't hardcore vaccine skeptics but just hadn't gotten around to get vaccinated yet."  

However there are other studies that suggest attaching a monetary value for a health benefit like a vaccine can have a long term consequence of undermining the importance of that benefit.

The Ohio Department of Health has already spent $23 million on vaccine administration costs, with $10.5 million of that going towards public outreach and education. 

That money comes from federal coronavirus relief funds, already appropriated to the health department by a panel of legislators.