California COVID Vaccination Lottery Craps Out

The vaccine lottery craze has largely failed, but Gameshow Gavin’s ‘Vax for the Win’ has been one of the biggest losers.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s press conference last Friday, June 4, was perhaps the tackiest of his tenure as California’s top elected official. The same man who spent the last year’s daily press briefings soberly preparing us for staggering COVID death tolls, devastating wildfire damage, and terrifying power outages, now held one of those very same press conferences before gold lamé and red velvet curtains, next to an oversized ping-pong ball bingo machine and a multicolored game show spinning wheel.

“Let’s turn this damned thing on!” Newsom barked toward the contraption full of bouncing yellow orbs, before announcing 15 winners of a $50,000 cash prize.

Game Show Gavin will return again next Tuesday, June 15, when he announces another, much bigger jackpot. On the day of California’s much-ballyhooed June 15 reopening — and with Newsom politically on the ropes with a recall election coming possibly as soon as September  — he’ll be doling out $1.5 million in cash to 10 lucky vaccinated Californians, as part of the state’s Vax for the Win vaccine lottery. (This Friday, June 11, will be another “$50,000 Friday” wherein another 15 vaccinated residents win that cash prize.)

It’s a bandwagon that several states are jumping on, with gimmicky names like Vax-A-Million and Vax 2 the Max. When Ohio saw a significant spike in vaccinations after announcing their weekly $1 million vaccine lottery in early May, other states followed suit, often adding more cash, or other prizes uniquely appealing to that particular state’s population.  

New Mexico upped the ante to $5 million. West Virginia is only doling out $1.5 million to contest winners, but other prizes are also in the offing — like custom-outfitted pickup trucks, hunting rifles, and shotguns, natch. Delaware’s vaccine lottery is not a million dollars, but instead $302,000 (a nod to the statewide 302 area code) and “low-number Delaware license plates,” which are strangely a status symbol in that state. 

Unfortunately for anyone hoping that the United States might reach herd immunity this summer — or ever — it appears that aside from Ohio, none of these schemes are working particularly well. Of the seven states with publicly available data on daily COVID-19 vaccine doses administered, almost all of them saw their vaccination rates decrease after their governors’ gaudy million-dollar cash prize announcements.

And California’s rate of decrease has been one of the sharpest in the country, making Vax for the Win kind of a loss. 

Golden Goose Chase

Comparing numbers gathered from the California Health and Human Service Open Data Portal with daily dose counts from other lottery states it seems like the Golden State’s contest has done little to goose jabs.

As of press time, California only has 13 days worth of vaccination data available since Gov. Newsom’s May 27 vaccine lottery announcement. In an effort to analyze the effectiveness of each state’s lottery as fairly as possible, we compared average daily doses administered in the 13 days before the lottery announcement to that same average for the 13 days after the announcement, to see if the rate went up or down, and by how much. 

(Two states with vaccine lotteries do not have data we can report, so they are not included in this analysis. Colorado only reports its vaccination data weekly, and does not yet have complete figures since that state’s vaccine announcement. The state of Washington does not post daily vaccine administrations, and they only announced their vaccine lottery on June 3.)

We only counted raw doses administered each day, so this is not a complex Nate Silver type of statistical model. The raw number of shots also includes second doses administered, so many of those people already had their first doses before the lottery announcement and were not likely swayed by the cash prize.

But states’ reporting systems vary wildly, and raw doses administered is one of the only statistics that is consistently reported across each state. Based on raw daily doses administered, here’s the percentage of increase or decrease in states’ vaccination rates after their governors announced vaccine lotteries.

  • Ohio +40%
  • West Virginia   -6%
  • Arkansas -13%
  • Oregon -30%
  • California  -40%
  • Delaware -48%
  • New Mexico -52%

As you can see, California saw one of the nation’s largest decreases in vaccine rates after the lottery announcement, with a 40 percent dip in shots over that 10-day period. Only New Mexico and Delaware fared worse, seeing their vaccination rates go down about half.

There are some caveats. West Virginia only has nine days of data to report, and New Mexico only eight, as those states only just announced their lotteries on June 1, so their numbers above are just eight- or nine-day averages. Several states did not report data on certain days, like Memorial Day, so in those cases, we added another day’s total to that state’s sample size.

And in a way that California should have anticipated, the three-day Memorial Day weekend was a significant drag on the state’s vaccine lottery effectiveness.

Missed Shots

Newsom’s Vax for the Win lottery did get out of the gate with a great start, as vaccinations increased by more than 15,000 the day after his announcement. But they plummeted the following day, and look to be on a downward trajectory still.

There are reasons that California’s lottery is not doing well. The two-week “Blink and you miss it” timeline left only 18 days for unvaccinated people to get their shot and become eligible. And Newsom announced the program on a Thursday, only one day before the Memorial Day weekend.

Weekend vaccination numbers are always very low in every state. By starting the California vaccine lottery the day before the long Memorial Day Weekend, that guaranteed three poor days on an already very short 18-day incentive program. Consider West Virginia, which is doing regular drawings all the way out until August 4, and will continue offering that incentive for a couple more months. 

But overall, Newsom has done magnificently well in getting California vaccinated. We have the lowest COVID-19 rate of any state in the U.S., and we’ve already hit President Biden’s national goal of having 70 percent of the adult population vaccinated by July 4 — a full month before the deadline.

Every state’s vaccination rate peaked in the early April period when more people became eligible for the vaccine. None of the lotteries have gotten their states’ rates anywhere near as high as they were back then, these lotteries are merely meant to get the last remaining stubborn or reluctant types to get their COVID-19 vaccine. 

But even by that measure, compared to other states, Gavin Newsom’s Vax for the Win got waxed.

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