Right now, only 40 percent of Texans are fully vaccinated and only 47 percent have received at least one dose. Texas ranks 34th in the nation in terms of the percentage of the population that has been fully vaccinated.
While vaccines are widely available, many Texans remain hesitant about getting vaccinated. A new poll from Quinnipiac found that about one third of Texans, including almost half of Texas Republicans, say they do not plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine. With the country likely to miss President Biden’s goal of having 70 percent of the country receive at least one dose by the Fourth of July, it’s clear that drastic action is needed to overcome vaccine hesitancy.
One idea that’s been tried in other states is vaccine lotteries. It’s simple enough: everyone who gets vaccinated has a chance to win a prize, usually cash. Just like the regular lottery, the reward is large but the chances of winning it are quite small.
The first state to implement a vaccine lottery was Ohio. On May 12, Gov. Mike Dewine announced “Vax-a-Million,” where five lucky Ohioans who received at least one dose would win $1 million. While only adults were eligible to receive the big cash prize, 12-to-17 year olds had the chance to win a college scholarship.
Prior to the lottery, vaccinations in Ohio had been steadily declining for weeks. After its announcement, the state saw a 45 percent spike in its vaccination rate. The vaccination rate among 16 and 17-year-olds went up by 94 percent. “The results have exceeded my wildest expectations,” wrote Dewine in a New York Times op-ed.
It may seem odd, but behavioral economists say that the small chance of winning a big reward is a better motivator than a guaranteed small reward. Lotteries appeal to something experts call the “availability heuristic.” When people enter a lottery, they immediately think of what they would do if they won rather than how small the chance of winning actually is. Furthermore, the human mind has a difficult time grasping extremely remote odds.
A lottery with a large cash prize also has the advantage of universal appeal, after all who doesn’t want to win a million dollars? Incentives like free beer and tickets to Six Flags, which is what vaccine providers in San Antonio are doing, won’t work as well as a lottery not only because the reward is small but also because it is not universal. After all, not everyone likes beer or Six Flags.
Vaccine lotteries might also have particular appeal to those who are hesitant or ambivalent getting their shots. Lotteries appeal to risk takers and risk takers might be less likely to get vaccinated. Young and socioeconomically disadvantaged people are also more likely to buy lottery tickets and those demographics also tend to have more vaccine hesitancy.
Several states, such as New York, California, and Louisiana, have followed Ohio’s example. So far, Texas has not followed suit and Gov. Greg Abbott has publicly opposed offering cash incentives to get people vaccinated. “As it comes to using something like what you’ve seen in other states, like a lottery for vaccines or some kind of monetary inducement or anything like that, we don’t believe in using monetary inducements in the state of Texas,” said Abbott in an interview with NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth.
While a statewide vaccine lottery appears unlikely, the policy may still be implemented at the local level. Dallas County is currently looking into cash incentives, including a lottery. County Judge Clay Jenkins said that his office has been discussing the legality of a lottery and other incentives with the district attorney for over a month. However, given Abbott’s penchant for overruling city governments throughout the pandemic, we may see yet another clash between the governor and local officials should a vaccine lottery be implemented in Dallas or any other municipality.
Vaccine lotteries are not a panacea. While Ohio did see an initial spike in vaccinations, more than half of the state has still not been vaccinated. Vaccine lotteries might sway those who are ambivalent or have soft opposition. They can also persuade those who were already planning to get vaccinated eventually to get their dose sooner rather than later. However, changing the minds of those who are adamantly opposed to the COVID vaccine is going to be a much bigger challenge.
Still, given the results in Ohio and other states, the idea seems worth pursuing in Texas. It might not get everyone vaccinated but it can still get the state closer to herd immunity. America has done a remarkable job in making vaccines available, now it has to do everything it can to persuade enough people to get their shots.