Colorado not a winner in the vaccine lottery

Program failed to promote vaccinations, as expected

July 12, 2021 4:45 am

Gov. Jared Polis reveals a ceremonial check for $1 million for Sally Sliger, the winner of the first of five Colorado cash-prize drawings for people who got vaccinated for COVID-19, during a news briefing on June 4, 2021. Sliger, center, and her husband, Chris, left, stand behind the governor. (Governor Jared Polis Facebook)

Now that Colorado’s vaccine lottery has concluded, we can confidently say it went worse than expected.

Gov. Jared Polis, taking a cue from the “Vax-A-Million” lottery in Ohio, announced in May that the state would conduct a series of five drawings in which Colorado adults could win $1 million if they were vaccinated against the coronavirus. The point, amid declining vaccinations, was to encourage Coloradans to protect themselves from the pandemic.


The very idea of the lottery drawings was offensive to the thousands of Coloradans who, in response to the worst public health crisis in a century, got vaccinated not for some venal reward but as a form of civic duty and in service to the safety of their neighborhoods. That only an appeal to greed could inspire some residents to perform a basic act of community protection illustrated the abject selfishness that has characterized so much of America’s response to COVID-19.

But the program was as much a failure in practice as it was an insult in conception.

Five winners were announced in successive weeks starting in early June. The final winner was announced Wednesday. As The Denver Post reported, the vaccine lottery “didn’t spark a significant increase in immunizations, with the number of people inoculated in recent weeks falling to a level not seen since the shots became widely available to the public.”

The state’s own graph of vaccination data shows a steadily decreasing rate of inoculations since around the beginning of May — and certainly no discernible bumps around the million-dollar drawings.

A graph that shows the cumulative number of vaccinations in Colorado from December 2020 to early July 2021. (CDPHE)

Furthermore, promotion of the vaccine was most needed in rural areas of the state where administration rates have been dangerously low, such as Mesa and Fremont counties. But the very nature of a random drawing implied a likelihood that winners would come from areas with a high concentration of vaccinated people. That’s exactly what happened. As Denver Post editor Matt Sebastian described it in a tweet, “All 5 of Colorado’s $1 million vaccine lottery winners live along a roughly 60-mile stretch of the Front Range, most of them in the Denver metro area itself.” The result was that the spirit and influence of the program was concentrated exactly where it was least needed.

At least the governor’s intentions were good. There’s no doubt he believes the vaccines are effective and safe and he wants Coloradans to get vaccinated. But while he was investing time and state treasure in the lotteries, his efforts were counteracted by vaccine-doubters, resulting in a precarious moment for the state.

Multiple statewide metrics late last week were moving in the wrong direction. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 recently went up. The rate of new cases has increased for two consecutive weeks. The percentage of positive tests has gone up. All of this could have been avoided with a more determined effort to get enough people vaccinated.

Some regions are experiencing localized epidemics. The highly transmissible delta variant, first identified in India in May, was detected in Colorado first in conservative Mesa County. Coronavirus infections have ripped through the county and taxed the public health response. Almost all of the region’s hospital beds were recently occupied. Yet not quite 46% of Mesa residents have gotten themselves at least one dose of a vaccine.

How could that be?

One big reason is partisan lunacy. As with every public health measure related to COVID-19, right-wing misinformation and an extremist appeal to “freedom” persuaded millions of Americans to engage in self-destructive behavior. As political science professor and columnist Seth Masket noted, “Vaccinations are a better predictor of state voting patterns in 2020 than education, racial composition, or almost any other demographic factor.”

Want to guess whom Mesa County residents liked for president in last year’s election? Trump, by almost 28 percentage points. The area is also a stronghold for Trump cult member Rep. Lauren Boebert, who won in the county also by about 28 points.

Boebert is vocally dismissive of vaccinations. In a tweet she called federal officials promoting vaccinations “Needle Nazis.” The message was in reference to the White House’s surge response to delta variant hot spots. “The people of my district are more than smart enough to make their own decisions about the experimental vaccine and don’t need coercion by federal agents,” she said.

No long-shot lottery could ever compete with the kind of us-versus-them, government-as-oppressor hysteria whipped up by the prophets of MAGA America. That’s why Polis would be wiser to look not to Ohio but to the White House for guidance. The surge response included teams that were deployed to deliver supplies and offer on-the-ground and virtual support to local officials combating infections.

One of the first places in the country they traveled to was Mesa County.


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