Get vaccinated, get a prize: Will giveaways actually work?

·Senior Editor
·6-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

For months, the biggest challenge facing the effort to vaccinate Americans against the coronavirus was a lack of supply to meet the sky-high demand from people eager to get the shot. That problem has reversed in recent weeks. Now the U.S. is dealing with a surplus of vaccine doses and not enough people willing to take them. The daily rate of vaccines administered has been cut in half since its peak in early April, raising concerns that the country may not be able to vaccinate enough people to reach herd immunity.

In response to this trend, lawmakers and private companies have created incentives in hopes of nudging reluctant people toward getting the vaccine. Some are offering modest freebies like a cheeseburger, doughnut or pint of beer to the vaccinated. Local governments are providing perks like free public transit passes, hunting licenses and baseball tickets.

Others have kept it simple by giving away cash. West Virginia will distribute $100 savings bonds to residents between ages 16 and 35 who get the shot. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine made waves last week when he announced the state would give out five $1 million prizes to residents who have received a dose of the vaccine. Several other states — including New York, Maryland and Oregon — have since announced their own vaccine lotteries.

Why there’s debate

As much attention as these giveaways have garnered, there’s debate over whether they’ll be effective in persuading Americans to move past their hesitancy and get the vaccine.

Optimists say splashy giveaways may not be enough to change the minds of people who are entrenched in their opposition to the vaccine, but they could be enough to nudge those who are slightly reluctant or have been avoiding the inconvenience of getting the shot. Ohio’s Department of Health reported a significant bump in vaccination statewide in the week after its $1 million lottery was announced. There is also research that even modest incentives, like $100 in cash, can make a dent in vaccine hesitancy.

Critics say anyone who’s unconvinced by the promise that vaccines will protect them from a deadly virus that has killed 585,000 Americans is unlikely to abandon their hesitancy in exchange for a free burger or a tiny chance at a big cash payout. There are also concerns that giveaways may increase suspicion of the vaccines, since they could be viewed as coercive by some people. A number of experts have argued that vaccine mandates — either from employers, schools or businesses — will be much more effective at convincing people to roll up their sleeves than free prizes.

What’s next

It’s too early to gauge how effective the various incentives will be in boosting the number of vaccinations nationwide. Ohio is scheduled to announce its first million-dollar prize winner on Wednesday.



Giveaways could nudge a significant share of people in the right direction

“Offering incentives may encourage people who are not actively opposed to vaccination but may have put it off for any number of reasons. This portion of the population is still large but definitely could be made smaller with incentives.” — Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

If mandates aren’t an option, rewards are the next best choice

“Absent a decent stick — aside from, you know, the risk of dying from a virus — we’ve been forced to find carrots to convince the masses. ... So it may seem desperate at this point, but I can’t be mad at any and all efforts to get people vaccinated.” — Hayes Brown, MSNBC

Lotteries cleverly counteract a mindset that fuels vaccine hesitancy

“Ohio’s vaccine lottery turns our problems with probabilities into a strength. Those of us who most overemphasize low-probability events are the ones most likely to be scared off by rare vaccine side effects and the ones most likely to be most drawn to the lottery.” — Jay Corrigan and Matt Rousu, Cincinnati Enquirer

Public outreach campaigns don’t work in a country with such low levels of trust

“Contemporary Americans self-evidently do not share a common trust in any government or media institution. On the other hand, almost all of us still appreciate and believe in the institution of the United States dollar, and the ways it can be earned and spent.” — Ben Mathis-Lilley, Slate

It’s naive to expect people to get the shot for the right reasons

“Sure, people should do it without needing an incentive. But what’s the alternative to not offering them? Not enough people get vaccinated, and we’re stuck with a public-health crisis.” — Psychologist Matthew Normand to Atlantic

Prizes are good, but mandates are still needed

“Incentives shouldn’t be the end of our efforts. ... Once formal authorization is complete, it’s time for major public entities like schools and universities, entities that already collect health information about vaccines, to require vaccination of students and workers.” — David M. Perry, CNN


Vaccine mandates are more effective

“Government has other levers to pull. Politicians have relied on carrots because they’re overly reluctant to use sticks that could prompt a public outcry, such as requiring vaccine passports to travel or attend sporting events.” — James Hohmann, Washington Post

It’s fine for private companies to offer rewards, but not governments

“Some businesses are offering cash bonuses to their employees, or paying them for the time they spend traveling to and receiving their vaccines. That’s appropriate. So are baseball tickets, doughnuts and beer. Setting up a lottery that could reward someone with enough taxpayer money to retire isn’t appropriate.” — Paul Muschick, Morning Call

Giveaways won’t stop vaccine hesitancy

“There are some drawbacks to these programs for individuals who don’t have confidence in the vaccine or in the vaccination program, these giveaways are not likely to overcome these concerns. We still need to work with and speak with our communities to understand their concerns, so that we can help answer questions about the vaccine.” — Public health researcher Robert Bednarczyk to Decaturish

Protection from the virus should be plenty of motivation

“Thanks to the vaccine ... I’m spending time with friends and family again — no longer quite as frightened that I’ll unexpectedly leave my son without a father, or die alone in a hospital gasping for air. I won’t get rich, but I will get to live my life. So will tens of millions of other Americans. That seems like reward enough.” — Joel Mathis, the Week

Giveaways may increase vaccine skepticism

“Payment may prompt suspicion, leading people to perceive payment as a sign that vaccine risk is higher than they are being told. A better way to build trust is to treat people with respect, sitting down and listening to those who are opposed to or unsure about vaccines.” — Nancy S. Jecker, Journal of Medical Ethics

People shouldn’t be rewarded for selfishly putting others at risk

“At some point, the government is simply rewarding irresponsible behavior. It reinforces the message to people around the country that if you want to make bad choices, eventually the government will swoop in to bail you out.” — Christian Schneider, USA Today

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images