22-year-old wins Ohio's $1 million Covid vaccine lottery and more states offer cash prizes for getting the shot

"People don't focus so much on the odds. They mostly focus on the magnitude of reward."

Abbey Bugenske after she won Ohio's Vax-a-Million lottery.
Source: The State of Ohio

Ohio declared the first winners Wednesday of its Vax-a-Million lottery for people already vaccinated against Covid-19: Twenty-two-year-old Abbigail Bugenske won the $1 million jackpot and 14-year-old Joseph Costello won a four-year, full-ride scholarship to one of Ohio's public universities or colleges.

The drawing was the first of five that the Buckeye State will conduct over the next month in an effort to increase its vaccination rates.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine made national headlines earlier in May when he announced his plan to use federal Covid relief funds to create a cash lottery for vaccine takers — a plan the governor says has been a huge success.

Vaccinations in Ohio increased 55% among people 20 to 49 years old the week after the lottery was announced, and they increased 94% among 16- and 17-year-olds during the same period, according to DeWine's office.

Those increases have caught the attention of other states. Several, including Colorado, New York, and Oregon, have since created their own lotteries. The day after Bugenske's name was pulled in Ohio, California announced it too was jumping into the vaccine lottery game, dedicating $116.5 million to cash incentives, including 10 $1.5 million jackpots.

At least eight states now offer some kind of cash drawing for people who have been vaccinated. Another six (plus the District of Columbia) have created other statewide incentives for their residents to get the shot.

Ohio's $1 million cash prize is a 'brilliant move'

One reason Ohio's lottery likely helped increase vaccination rates is that it captured the imagination of large swaths of people who saw themselves winning the money, regardless of their actual chances, says Kevin Volpp, professor of behavioral economics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

"People don't focus so much on the odds. They mostly focus on the magnitude of reward," Volpp says. "In that sense, it was a brilliant move by the people in Ohio to come up with an award that really would get people's attention."

Lotteries are a tried and true way of attracting public participation, says Susan Bradley, a certified financial planner and founder of the Sudden Money Institute. "It's as old as the hills, this idea of using this lottery concept to drive behavior. And it's worked," she says. "This is nothing new."

It can also make a lot of financial sense for states who are adopting the lottery model to influence behavior, Volpp agues. Even if only another 1 million of the state's 11.6 million residents get Covid shots, the cost to the state per person would be just $5, Volpp wrote in a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post — far less than it would spend if it gave all people 35 and younger savings bonds, the way West Virginia has.

3 best practices for Covid vaccine lottery winners

By the standards set by some recent Powerball and Mega Millions payouts, the winnings from the vaccine lotteries, most of which are $1 million or less, will be relatively modest, especially once the winners pay taxes on their windfalls.

Abbigail Bugenske, the 22-year-old winner of Ohio's first $1 million drawing, doesn't know how she'll spend the money but is very happy to be a millionaire, she told NBC News.

"I was screaming enough that my parents thought I was crying and that something was wrong," she said. "And when I started yelling that I won $1 million and was going to be a millionaire, they told me to calm down and make sure it wasn't a prank."

What to do if you win the lottery

Video by Stephen Parkhurst

That's good advice, says Bradley, because a lot of people are about to become very interested in Bugenske and her financial future.

"The kind of money that she's going to deposit will probably stand out on somebody's list. And someone — everyone — in different divisions of the bank is going to have her name," Bradley says. "She has to be on her guard, and she has to be careful, even where she deposits that check."

The best thing someone in Bugenske's position can do is take a deep breath, contact a financial planner to help navigate the process of investing the winnings, and follow three best practices, Bradley says:

  1. Find out how much you owe in taxes. The first thing any lottery winner should do is calculate their tax bill, Bradley says: "People start to make commitments or get ideas based on a gross number, and then they're disappointed." Determining what the after-tax amount is at an early stage helps avoid that kind of confusion.
  2. Determine who is a party to your winnings. The second step is to ask yourself a simple question that can be difficult to answer, Bradley says. "Who won? Is it 'I won'? Or is it 'we won'?" Other people can make expectations for your money very quickly, she says, and setting boundaries early in the process will avoid straining your personal relationships.
  3. Don't feel bad about having a little fun. Once you've found a financial professional to help you transition to your post-winning life and you've defined how much you have and the rules for that money, it's important to have fun, Bradley says. "There's nothing wrong with having some enjoyment with money that falls into your life.

    "That enjoyment could be sharing it with other people. It may be gifting, but be careful that you don't have strings attached. It could be going on a trip," Bradley says. "But enjoy some of it. It's not a bad thing to go spend it if you're going to win that kind of money. Go spend $10,000, $20,000 on something that is just pure fun."

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