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Lotteries did not encourage COVID-19 vaccinations, new study finds

Despite the vaccine lottery, North Carolina’s overall vaccination rate remains below the national average.

The chance to win $1 million did not lead to increased vaccination rates against COVID-19, according to a new study published Friday that examined the states that held vaccine lotteries earlier this year.

There was a “near zero” association between those cash drawings and additional vaccinations in states like Colorado, which held five drawings among vaccinated individuals, and North Carolina, which held four.

We were really excited when we saw these policies come out and were really hopeful that they were going to be effective, and they just turned out not to be,” Andrew Friedson, an associate economics professor at University of Colorado Denver and one of the authors of the study, told Colorado Newsline.

Dhaval Dave, Benjamin Hansen and Joseph J. Sabia co-authored the study.

Friedson and his team examined vaccination rates before and after the announcement of a lottery in 19 states, and then compared those rates to those in non-lottery states. They discovered little to no association between the lottery announcement and the number of vaccines administered after that announcement date, indicating that the lottery strategy was ineffective.

Ohio was the first state to announce its “Vax-a-Million” lottery on May 12, and other states quickly followed suit.

The states included in the study were Arkansas, Colorado, California, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia.

The lotteries were incentive programs designed to get states to a high enough vaccination rate to achieve herd immunity, or around 70%. It seems, however, that they had little effect in convincing people to get vaccinated. State data shows a leveling out of the vaccine rate following the lottery announcement, not the intended uptick.

Colorado spent $5 million in federal COVID-19 relief money for the five cash drawings. North Carolina awarded four $1 million first prizes and three $125,000 scholarships.

“Any dollar that you spend on something that doesn’t work is a dollar that you could have been spending on something that does,” Friedson said. “So this is, across all the different states, tens of millions of dollars that we could have been spending on potentially more effective policies.”

Friedson said this study is important to inform future decision making for public health officials.

“We see a policy that seems really exciting,” Friedson said. “Step one is to find out if it works. If it doesn’t work, step two is to find out why and find out what we can do instead that might work better.”

Those latter questions were not part of this study, but Friedson acknowledged that guaranteed incentives, rather than a minuscule chance of a life-changing payout, could work better in convincing those on the fence about getting the vaccine.

Later on, Colorado and North Carolina also implemented a $100 gift card vaccine incentive programs.

There is also the possibility that some people will simply never be enticed to get the vaccine.

“Another theory is that no amount of money was going to convince people, because they were already convinced they didn’t want it,” Friedson said.

The study notes that a vaccine lottery is not an “informative” strategy and that using the money for “more complete messaging on vaccination” could have been more effective.

“I have no doubt that all of the governors’ offices that were doing these lotteries had good intentions,” Friedson said. “I’m sure it’s disappointing. But if we have a policy goal that we’re trying to achieve — which is to get people vaccinated — we have to be a little bit agnostic about how we get there. If a policy works, we want to do more of that. If it doesn’t work, we want to move away. So we tried the policy, it didn’t work, and now it’s time to move on.”

The office of Gov. Jared Polis stands by its incentive strategy as a way to surpass the 70% vaccination goal before President Joe Biden’s nationwide July 4 goal date.

“We will review this study and its methodology,” Polis press secretary Conor Cahill wrote in an email. “It’s easy to be an arm-chair critic and there will probably be other studies in the years ahead that show the opposite findings.”

He wrote that the Polis administration “spared no expense, acted with urgency, and took bold innovative action” to deploy the vaccine and end the pandemic.

The governor’s office also touts the gift card giveaway, a guaranteed reward that the study did not consider, as a major success. According to Cahill, vaccination rates went up in all but five Colorado counties after announcing the gift card giveaway, and some sites in “critically under-vaccinated communities” saw a demand increase of 300%.

“Once we launched the gift card giveaway, it was so popular, the state was able to extend it to reach even more unvaccinated Coloradans — especially in rural and harder-to-reach areas of our state with our mobile vaccine bus and pop-up clinics,” Cahill wrote.

In Colorado, just over 71% of people are fully vaccinated, according to state data. In North Carolina, around 65% of the adult population is fully vaccinated.

Sara Wilson is a reporter for Colorado Newsline, which first published this report.

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