Opinion: A lottery ticket as a reward for vaccination? That’s nuts

A woman receives a shot in the arm.
Firefighter Anthony MacDougall administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Carmen Limeta at a mobile vaccination site at South Park Recreation Center in Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve been trying to figure out the odds of my winning a cool $1.5 million and bidding my boss farewell. As a vaccinated Californian, I qualify for the vax lottery announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday, in which the state is handing out 10 prizes of $1.5 million each to people vaccinated against COVID-19 whose numbers come up lucky in a drawing. There are a bunch of smaller prizes as well.

Newsom is following in the footsteps of Ohio, New York and a couple of other states in setting up lotteries in the hopes that a pecuniary incentive will outweigh their fears of or antipathy toward being vaccinated, despite what have so far proved to be remarkably effective vaccines against the new coronavirus. The problem is that the lotteries in the other states have not yet been shown to meaningfully raise vaccination rates.

It is breathtaking that so many Californians are now able to visit relatives, hug friends and generally cavort about unmasked and without thinking about how much viral load they might have been exposed to by lingering in a store for a half-hour.

Not so for unvaccinated people, however. A recent analysis by the Washington Post found that the virus is still surging, hospitalizing and killing people who reject the needle, spreading as fast among them as it did during the winter.

Those are the kinds of numbers I’d hope people would look at instead of the $1.5 million that they have so little chance of winning, they might as well count on being struck by lightning. Our society is quickly building a new kind inequity, two societies within our borders: the people who are almost entirely protected from death by COVID-19, and those who are at real risk.


My bigger concern is that people will look at neither number. If people’s worry is that the vaccines are dangerous to their long-term health — despite no evidence that they are — the long odds of winning money seem unlikely to change that.

It’s true that money is flowing in the state like it hasn’t since 1977 (the year before Proposition 13 passed). But once upon a time, $116 million, the amount Newsom plans on spending on the vax lottery, was a lot of money. Maybe it’s not so much compared with the new billions going to schools, preschool, universities. But this is a state so far from whole, it’s still a lot of money to the people who can’t afford a decent rental or fresh vegetables. It could buy the land for community urban farms, or fix up the state parks, which need a lot of attention.

How about this: The state sets up one-week dental clinics in various locations around the state and pays for people to get the dental care for which they lack insurance. Make the care contingent on either showing proof of vaccination or agreeing to receive the first dose on the spot. At least that way, we’d know we were accomplishing something for Californians’ health with the money. And we might just get a bunch of them protected against COVID-19 as well.

So far, about 22 million Californians have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, which is enough to be entered. That makes my chances worse than 1 in 2 million. Guess I’d better keep acting nice to my editor.