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GREG HARTON: Are scratch-offs a sure cure for covid-19

by Greg Harton | May 30, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

The government wants you to do it. It's spending millions of dollars trying to entice you. Just about everywhere you turn, there are radio, TV and newspaper ads trying to eliminate your hesitancy by highlighting the benefits, if you just join in.

Sure, there are some small risks, but the potential payoff is huge.

It's the lottery, of course.

Maybe you thought I was describing covid-19 vaccinations. These days, the two ideas are easy to get mixed up as several states attempt to use their lotteries as a way to convince more people to be vaccinated against covid-19's spread.

States, like Arkansas, hope residents will take a shot at winning by taking a shot at not getting sick or dying, the other not-so-insignificant benefits of vaccinations. On Thursday, California launched the biggest lottery-related incentive totaling $116.5 million in prize giveaways in the hopes that the 12 million residents older than 12 who haven't been vaccinated will join in. Ohio, Colorado, Oregon and New York are among the other states using the lottery as an incentive.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson last week announced Arkansas would try incentives to convince Arkansans slow to embrace covid-19 vaccinations to go ahead and roll up their sleeves for what really is as painless an interaction anyone can have with a needle piercing their skin.

When I got my vaccinations -- two doses of the Pfizer vaccine -- I looked over at the person giving the shot and said "That's it? Really?"

And yet there are people who will grit their teeth through an hour-long tattoo application who nonetheless shy away from getting a couple of shots to protect their health.

To be fair, though, it's not necessarily the prick of a tiny needle they're worried about. It's the injection of the vaccine into their bodies. They're just not convinced by the Pfizer vaccine's 95 percent effectiveness in preventing illness from covid-19, or the 94.1 percent effectiveness of the Moderna version. Johnson and Johnson's vaccine is a bit less effective (72 percent overall) but it only requires the one shot vs. the two required of the others.

Those numbers aren't quite compelling enough for some.

But, whoa, a lottery ticket? That right there is something you can rely on.

OK, so yeah, I'm a bit skeptical, not so much about whether offering the chance to win a lottery prize might move some people to get vaccinations, but about the thought process by which people embrace the enticement to do something -- get a shot -- they so far have been hesitant to do.

The state isn't saying each person who gets a vaccine now will win something. It's just a chance to win something, in this case a $1 million jackpot on a $20 scratch-0ff card. Logically, one would expect that the vast majority of participants will not be winners. Lotteries by their very design must produce many more losers so that the tiny percentage of winners can collect big prizes.

A friend of my family each Christmas includes a lottery scratch-off card as gifts to my kids. The boys get a kick out of them and the excitement that maybe they've won something, so I appreciate our friend's kindness. In the end, though, no big jackpot, just fleeting visions of riches that ultimately turn into just another small piece of heavy card stock.

But unvaccinated people at this stage have shown themselves to be gamblers, willing to accept the risks of so far not taking an effective vaccine. So maybe the state's offer of a lottery scratch-off will be right up their alley. Unconvinced by the solid medical evidence of the vaccines' safety and effectiveness, they might be motivated to act simply because Gov. Hutchinson says they have a chance at $1 million.

Well, it doesn't have to make sense if it accomplishes what the governor hopes it will. When a pandemic sickens 170 million people and kills 3.5 million around the world, it's worth a shot.


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