Ohio Vax-a-million: How it’s legal and why the money is being spent on a vaccine lottery

Vax-a-million

State officials are clear that, yes, it's legal, and, no, the money cannot simply be redirected to another project like schools or roads

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Ohio residents who have at least started vaccination are now able to register for the Vax-a-million lottery, a series of drawings in May and June that will award five $1 million prizes to adults and five scholarships to a state university for those 12 through 17.

State officials are clear that, yes, it’s legal, and, no, the money cannot simply be redirected to another project like schools or roads.

“We have to use this money to bring awareness, to help encourage and to facilitate uptake of the vaccine,” state health director Stephanie McCloud said. “We knew we were going to find innovative ways to bring vaccine education and vaccine uptake to Ohioans.”

Where did the money come from?

Last year, Congress passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to help states cope with the costs of the coronavirus pandemic.

“CARES Act dollars require that payments from the coronavirus relief fund only be used to cover … expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency,” McCloud said. “That is the guidance from the Treasury. We have to use this money.”

The state has used CARES Act money in other ways. Last year, the state designated $429 million to projects such as rental and mortgage assistance, small business relief, and support for bars and restaurants.

State Attorney General Dave Yost acknowledged that the vaccine lottery seemed to be legal, although he did not take a position over whether he liked the idea.

“It doesn’t appear to violate state law, though it depends on how it’s designed,” Yost wrote on Twitter. “Just because a thing may be legally done does not mean it should be. The wisdom of it is a question for the Governor and the General Assembly.”

But why a lottery?

Technically, it’s a drawing, not a lottery, although the Ohio Lottery is helping to facilitate and publicize the drawings. But DeWine wanted to try something different to encourage residents to get vaccinated after the state had put together several public service announcements and engaged in other outreach programs.

“I just felt that this was one thing that had not been tried, one thing that there is certainly evidence that it motivates people,” he said. “Think about what occurs when you have the multistate [lottery] drawings, and when the numbers keep going up and up and up and up.”

Not that DeWine expects the same response as a large Powerball jackpot.

“I’m not saying we’re going to see people lined up to get a vaccine, but it does show that the opportunity to do something like this.”

How will the state judge success?

McCloud argued that an increase in reported vaccinations Friday, after the lottery announcement, showed that it was already having an effect.

Of course, that increase could have been tied to the state opening vaccinations to those 12 through 15. But in the days after the announcement, McCloud said the rate of vaccinations among the 30-to-54 age range increased by 6% after weeks of decline.

What do state leaders think of it?

McCloud praised DeWine for presenting an innovative way to increase vaccine awareness and encourage people to get the shot. But criticism has been swift from Democrats as well as some of DeWine’s fellow Republicans.

House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes (D-Akron) questioned the use of the money.

“As elected leaders, we’re obligated to take seriously our duty to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” she said. “Using millions of dollars in relief funds in a drawing is a grave misuse of money that could be going to respond to this ongoing crisis. Ohioans deserve better than this.”

And former state treasurer Josh Mandel, a frequent DeWine critic and Republican running for U.S. Senate in 2022, said that with the lottery, “Mike DeWine is bribing people with their own money.”

But DeWine shrugged off the criticism — saying he has been criticized for 14 months during the pandemic — in defending the lottery.

“It’s unusual, but these are unusual times,” he said. “I think we have to be bold, and we have to do everything within our power to get rid of this pandemic and drive it to the ground. And getting more people vaccinated will do that.”

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