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Cash for COVID-19 shots? We’re in! | COMMENTARY

Gov. Larry Hogan announced that the Maryland Lottery will be awarding $2 million in prize money to Marylanders that have been vaccinted for COVID-19. 40 drawings over 40 days for the chance to win $40,000 each day and one winner of $400,000 on July 4th.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced that the Maryland Lottery will be awarding $2 million in prize money to Marylanders that have been vaccinted for COVID-19. 40 drawings over 40 days for the chance to win $40,000 each day and one winner of $400,000 on July 4th. (Bryn Stole)

There’s a lot someone can do with $40,000: buy a car, put a down payment on a house, pay off some credit card bills, renovate a kitchen. There’s even more one can do with $400,000: buy a whole house, send a couple of kids to college, maybe even retire, depending on individual circumstances.

Plenty of us have thought about what we’d do if we had a sudden influx of cash, and many of us play the state lottery in hopes of fulfilling such dreams. That’s most certainly among the reasons Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan joined governors in several other states — including New York, Ohio, Kentucky and Oregon — in turning to lottery winnings to help convince vaccine-wary residents to get a COVID-19 shot.

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Governor Hogan has launched a combined $2 million lottery that will hand out $40,000 cash prizes over 40 days to state residents who have received coronavirus vaccinations. The drawings start this week, with the first winner picked Tuesday, and continue through July 3; a grand prize of $400,000 will be awarded on the July 4 holiday. All it takes to enter is a vaccination — you’re automatically registered once you get a shot, even those of us who received shots before the lottery program was announced.

Some might think we’ve reached a sad place when we have to resort to paying people off to protect themselves against a deadly virus. Ideally, everyone would choose to follow the science and get the shot to save lives — their own and others. Reality, however, is not perfect. People have all kinds of reasons for not getting vaccinated, and some are more rational than others. It’s understandable to be tentative because of past bad experiences with the medical system or wanting to wait to see how others react to the vaccine before getting yours (though we expect to hear less of that as time passes). But COVID vaccines have also gotten wrapped up in partisan politics and conspiracy theories that have further undermined the ability to establish the herd immunity needed to severely limit the disease spread. Simply put, there are a lot of people left who need to be convinced.

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Incentives have worked in the past to get people to act in their own best interests, and they’re certainly worth a shot here (see what we did, there?). Nearly 40 years ago, in North Carolina people were enticed to wear seat belts with prizes that included meals, soft drinks, $5 coupons, T-shirts and gift certificates during a 6-month period in 1983. Additionally, six monthly, $500 drawings were held, along with a $1,000 grand prize drawing. Overall belt use increased from 24% to 41% during that time. Companies also have long enticed their employees to meet certain wellness goals, such as stopping smoking, by offering cash, gift cards or free gym memberships. The hope is that healthier employees translate to lower health care costs.

The thinking is similar in the fight against COVID-19, with incentives seeking to produce individual action that bolsters the greater good. Before the lottery idea, Governor Hogan initially incentivized vaccination with a $100 bonus for state employees. Many private businesses are paying hourly employees for the time needed to take off to get a vaccine, or offering stipends and additional vacation time. People around the country have cashed in on freebies such as doughnuts, french fries, beer, shots of liquor, and tickets to museums, the zoo, the theater and other attractions.

Many of those who are still sitting on the sidelines say they could be convinced by such tactics. About 28% of employed adults who have been reluctant to get vaccinated said they would be more likely to get it done if their employ er gave them paid time off to receive the shot and recover from any side effects, one survey found. About a quarter of the reluctant overall — and nearly 40% of those waiting to see how others’ shots turn out — said they could be persuaded by a $200 incentive.

Upping the ante with lottery prizes and college scholarships as vaccine momentum dies is far better than punitive measures or mandates, which may make the already skeptical holdouts more resistant. The country is not out of the woods yet when it comes to COVID, and public officials should try every measure they can to get people the shot. What better way than cash?

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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