Local Politics: Who wants to be a millionaire?

Vax-a-Million is not the first time the governor has treated public health like a lottery ticket

Craig Calcaterra
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine stresses the importance of getting vaccinated during a press conference at the Wolstein Center in Cleveland on Tuesday April 27, 2021.

Last week, Gov. Mike DeWine announced that Ohioans will be eligible to enter the "Vax-a-Million" lottery that will pay out $1 million each to five vaccinated adults. Vaccinated teenagers will get in on the fun, too, with five of them receiving full-ride scholarships to one of Ohio's public universities upon proof of jabbing. The drawings will take place over five successive weeks, with the first occurring on Wednesday, May 26, and registration for the lottery opened today (Tuesday, May 18).

The announcement was certainly attention-grabbing and, as a result, Ohio has been national news since the announcement of this scheme. But I think it's worth noting that this is not the first time Governor DeWine has asked us to treat matters of public health like a lottery ticket.

More than a year before Vax-a-Million was announced, when we were nearly two months into the almost quaint early phase of the pandemic, DeWine and then-Ohio Health Director Amy Acton spoke to us in reassuring tones each day, telling us that if we all pulled together and did what was right, we'd make it through this mess. Then, on May 7,  DeWine pivoted from a pandemic plan that depended on certain benchmarks for COVID testing, infection rates, and the production of personal protective equipment to one in which such benchmarks were set aside and the state began to fully open up from lockdown, well, just because. 

In his address to the state that day, DeWine essentially abandoned the "things will get back to normal when we all pull together and do what's right" talk and pivoted to reopening being a "gamble" we had to take, regardless of whether benchmarks had been met. A gamble that was "going to determine really if we can do this or not." Based on the number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths that followed that hasty reopening, I'd say it was a gamble we lost.

A year later and we're still gambling. Quite literally now, having once again given up on the notion that simply imploring people to do the right thing will convince them to do the right thing. 

I am somewhat optimistic, though, that Vax-a-Million will be more successful in getting the sizable number of vaccine resisters in our midst to go get jabbed than I was about the reopening gamble's chances of keeping Ohioans healthy and alive. Early numbers support this belief, too. In the days following the lottery’s unveiling, the rate of vaccinations among the 30-to-54 age range increased by 6 percent after weeks of decline, according to state Health Director Stephanie McCloud.

I mean, no, a less than one-in-a-million chance to win a million bucks doesn't represent the best odds, but the people who to this point have hesitated to get vaccines no doubt include a lot of folks who threw around the phrase "99 percent survival rate" last year and thought that it meant that anti-COVID precautions were unnecessary. For once the fact that a lot of people are bad at math will probably work to our advantage.

Maybe there are better ideas out there. Perhaps giving 50,000 people a guaranteed $100 each to get vaccinated would bring better returns than giving five people a chance at $1 million. Maybe giving a million people a free $1 donut would work better, too. But we really don't know, and counting on the rationality of the public has not exactly been a winning strategy since all of this began, so my view is that Governor Wonka's Golden Ticket plan is worth a shot. Besides, it's not like there are a ton of alternatives to either gambling or bribery.

Public health experts have said that people possess an ethical and moral duty to promote not just their own health but the health of the public at large. They have said that everyone should do their necessary part to put a stop to the pandemic, and that vaccine plans that depend on payment or bribery create a moral hazard where, in the future, people will be even more hesitant to do what is right in an emergency and instead will be inclined to hold out for the money or a lottery ticket.

I agree with that on an intellectual level, but if the last year and change has taught us anything, it’s that such idealism about a person’s duties and their willingness to fulfill them when they are free to do literally anything else falls somewhere between "quaint" and "laughable" on the "whaddaya think is gonna really happen?" scale. I want Ohioans to do the right thing for the right reasons. I really and truly do. But given how little good simply wanting that has done in the past year, I'm realistic.

All hail Vax-a-Million! Let us achieve with Plinko that which we could not with prudence.