California to offer $116M in coronavirus vaccine prize money

In this May 21 file photo, socially distanced people wait in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Providence Edwards Lifesciences vaccination site in Santa Ana, Calif. Provided
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File

LOS ANGELES — California is giving away the country’s largest pot of vaccine prize money — $116.5 million — in an attempt to get millions more inoculated before the most populous U.S. state fully reopens next month.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday announced the prizes, which also include the nation’s highest single vaccine prize: $1.5 million. People who have already been vaccinated will be eligible.

“We’re putting aside more resources than any other state in America and we’re making available the largest prizes of any state in America for those that seek to get vaccinated,” Newsom said from a vaccination site in Los Angeles.

The state estimates about 12 million Californians 12 and older have not been vaccinated. About 63% of the 34 million eligible have gotten shots, though the pace has slowed markedly in recent weeks as infection rates have plummeted to record lows.

California’s reopening is pegged for June 15, and on that day a drawing will be held to award 10 vaccinated people the top prize. Newsom said he hopes the prizes will help the state ensure more than 70% of eligible people are vaccinated by the time the state reopens.

“This is all in an effort to incentivize and build momentum,” Newsom said.

Another 30 people will win $50,000 each, with those drawings starting June 4. Anyone 12 and older who has received at least one shot will be eligible. And the next 2 million people who get vaccinated will get $50 gift cards. Newsom said he hopes to give out all of those gift cards by June 15.

Ohio this week announced the first $1 million winner of its “Vax-a-Million” contest, as well as the first child to win a full college scholarship. Colorado and Oregon also offered $1 million prizes.

New York is raffling 50 full scholarships to children 12 to 17 to public universities and colleges in the state, selecting 10 winners each of the next five Wednesdays.

That California is turning to cash prizes to encourage vaccinations marks a major turnaround from earlier this year, when Californians clamored for shots, with some driving or waiting in line for hours to get one.

“Some Californians weren’t ready to get their COVID-19 vaccine on Day One, and that’s OK. This program is designed to encourage those who need extra support to get vaccinated and help keep California safe,” Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, director of the state’s department of public health, said in a statement.

Newsom’s office said the program would be aimed at reaching people in communities hardest hit by the pandemic — mainly low-income, Black and Latino people — though it wasn’t immediately clear how the money would be tailored to fit that goal.

California uses a “vaccine equity metric” to track vaccination progress that splits zip codes into four groups from least to most advantaged. Nearly half of people in the least advantaged neighborhoods still haven’t been vaccinated, according to the state.

By contrast, less than a quarter of people in the most advantaged areas haven’t been vaccinated.

Among all Latinos, 57% are not yet vaccinated. That’s the highest percentage of any racial or ethnic group. State figures show 40% of white Californians are not vaccinated.