California to offer $116M in coronavirus vaccine prize money

Staff and wire reports

Californians will be eligible for $116.5 million in prize money for getting coronavirus shots, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday, a windfall aimed at getting millions more vaccinated before the nation's most populous state fully reopens next month.

California isn’t the first state to offer vaccine prizes, though its pot of money is the largest, and so is the most valuable single prize: $1.5 million.

The state's reopening is pegged for June 15, and on that day a drawing will be held to award 10 vaccinated people the top prize.

Another 30 people will win $50,000 each, with those drawings taking place June 4 and June 11.

Anyone 12 and older who has received at least one shot will be eligible,regardless of immigration status, Newsom said. Exceptions include those who are incarcerated, non-California residents and other "categories," such as individuals who work for the state lottery. 

People who have received at least one shot are already in the registry for the drawing, he added.

"If you're disappointed on June 4, you didn't win $50,000, you got June 11, your name will automatically be in that pool, and then again on June 15," Newsom said. 

The next 2 million people who get vaccinated will get $50 digital gift cards, effective Thursday. Individuals will receive them either through email or text message after their one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. 

Newsom said more ideas are coming after June 15, but did not share additional details.

"These are real incentives, these are opportunities to say thank you to those not only seeking to get vaccinated as we move forward, but also those who have been vaccinated," Newsom said.

The state estimates about 12 million Californians 12 and older have not been vaccinated. About 63% of the 34 million eligible have gotten shots, though the pace has slowed markedly in recent weeks as infection rates have plummeted to record lows.

That California is turning to cash prizes to encourage vaccinations marks a major turnaround from earlier this year, when Californians clamored for shots, with some driving or waiting in line for hours to get one.

“Some Californians weren’t ready to get their COVID-19 vaccine on Day One, and that’s OK. This program is designed to encourage those who need extra support to get vaccinated and help keep California safe,” Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, director of the state’s department of public health, said in a statement.

Newsom’s office said the program would be aimed at reaching people in communities hardest hit by the pandemic — mainly the poor as well as Black and Latino residents — though it wasn’t immediately clear how the money would be tailored to fit that goal.

California uses a “vaccine equity metric” to track vaccination progress that splits zip codes into four quartiles from least to most advantaged. Nearly half of people in the least advantaged neighborhoods still haven’t been vaccinated, according to the state.

By contrast, less than a quarter of people in the most advantaged areas haven’t been vaccinated.

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Among all Latinos, 57% are not yet vaccinated. That’s the highest percentage of any racial or ethnic group. Forty percent of white Californians are not vaccinated, according to state figures.

Newsom said a survey from the University of California, Los Angeles found that 31% of people said incentives would make them more likely to get vaccinated.

The governor added he believes the state will have 70% of Californians fully vaccinated by June 15.

The Treasury Department this week updated its guidance for how states and local governments can spend billions of dollars in aid included in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that passed in March.

Lotteries, cash payments or other incentive programs are allowed as long as they are “reasonably expected” to increase vaccinations and the costs are “reasonably proportional” to the expected public health benefit, according to the department.

“We are nothing if not responsive to good ideas,” said Andy Slavitt, the White House senior adviser on the national COVID-19 response. “We encourage states to use their creativity to draw attention to vaccines and get their states and the country back to normal as quickly as possible.”

Incentives throughout the country

Ohio started the trend with its Vax-a-Million program, which offers a $1 million lottery prize to five vaccinated winners. The state is also giving full-ride college scholarships to five students ages 12 to 17.

After announcing Vax-a-Million, the vaccination rate among Ohioans ages 20 to 49 increased 55%. In some counties, the vaccination rate doubled. 

As of Monday, 2.75 million adults had registered for the cash drawings, and 104,386 students registered for the college scholarship giveaways.

Ohio this week announced the first $1 million winner, as well as the first child to win a full college scholarship. Colorado and Oregon also offered $1 million prizes.

New York is raffling 50 full scholarships to children 12 to 17 to public universities and colleges in the state, selecting 10 winners each of the next five Wednesdays.

Other incentives throughout the country have included free donuts from Krispy Kreme, free flights from United Airlines and free beer from Samuel Adams.

“People do care about getting vaccinated, but it turns out they have other things they care about, too,” Slavitt said during a media briefing this week. “Some of those things might encourage people to think about what might otherwise be a lower priority.”

When Ohio's program began, the state lagged the national average in the share of residents who had gotten at least one shot. Now, nearly half of the state’s adults are fully vaccinated, which is about on pace with the rest of the nation. 

CVS Health announced on Thursday that it will allow people who have been or plan to get vaccinated at its stores to enter a sweepstakes giveaway for a variety of prizes, including a trip to the Super Bowl, $5,000 to fund a family reunion, cruises or cash.

The sweepstakes begins June 1 and runs for six weeks. People vaccinated before June 1 are also eligible, spokesman Joe Goode said.

Prizes include:

  • 125 $500 giveaways
  • Five $5,000 giveaways for family reunions
  • 100 seven-day cruises for two through Norwegian Cruise Line
  • A VIP trip to Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles for two
  • 250 Night Out coupon booklets through Unilever
  • 2022 NCAA Final Four package for two
  • Five trips for two through the Bermuda Tourism Authority
  • 500 $100 gift cards for dates through Hinge
  • One grand prize $5,000 gift card for an ultimate date experience through Hinge
  • VIP package for two to attend the iHeartRadio Music Festival
  • Six fully escorted tours for two to international destinations
  • Five two-night weekend getaways with a Platinum membership upgrade through Wyndham Rewards
  • One grand prize seven-night getaway through Wyndham Rewards

This "will bring us one step closer to all the things we’ve missed during the past 14 months, and keep our country moving in the right direction," said Kyu Rhee, chief medical officer of CVS Health, in a statement.

Desert Sun reporter Ema Sasic, Associated Press and USA Today's Maureen Groppe and Nathan Bomey contributed to this report.