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Michigan is giving away millions to encourage vaccinations. Is it working?

Lansing — Michigan, which launched a $5 million sweepstakes to encourage residents to get vaccinated, has experienced one of the smallest increases nationally in vaccine coverage during July, according to an analysis of federal data.

From July 1, the day Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the MI Shot to Win initiative, offering cash prizes to encourage more residents to get their vaccines, to Wednesday, the percentage of all state residents with at least one dose moved from 51.5% to 52.5%, a change of 1 percentage point, according to tracking by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only eight other states have an increase equal to or less than that over the same period, according to the CDC numbers.

The figures indicate the new sweepstakes is not having a significant impact on Michigan's vaccination efforts, in comparison to past rates and those in other states, and reveal the potential struggles ahead as COVID-19 surges elsewhere, summer's end nears and students prepare to return to classrooms.

Members of the Whitmer administration defended the raffle initiative during a Wednesday event focused on revealing the winner of a $1 million prize, the second-largest reward of the effort.

"The MI Shot to Win sweepstakes is one strategy that we deployed, especially during the lull during the middle of summer when vaccination rates continue to slow, no matter what vaccine. Any public health expert would mention that," said Kerry Ebersole Singh, director of the Protect Michigan Commission, the state group focused on sharing information about the COVID-19 vaccine. "This strategy was deployed at a time when we wanted to sustain and help create urgency."

Likewise, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist called on residents who haven't gotten vaccinated yet to reconsider. The highly spreadable delta variant, which federal health officials say now accounts for 83% of COVID-19 cases nationally, is a "real threat" to the unvaccinated, Gilchrist said.

Most states, including Arkansas and Florida, which are now leading the nation in new cases per population, have experienced jumps in infections in recent weeks. Michigan's new case numbers and rate of positive COVID-19 tests also have only inched upward, and concerns linger over how those numbers could change. A statewide coronavirus surge began in the Upper Peninsula last fall.

"If you have not yet gotten vaccinated, know this variant is more deadly and more contagious than others before it," Gilchrist said.

Whitmer's administration has set a goal of getting 70% of the population age 16 and older vaccinated. As of Wednesday, that percentage stood at 63% with only slight increases in recent weeks. The nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency estimates Michigan won't hit 70% until December.

Asked about the declining rates of people getting their first dose, Gilchrist said the state is evaluating ways to encourage more vaccinations.

"It's the key priority for the state of Michigan to do everything every single day to get folks vaccinated," Gilchrist said. "Even just ... one more vaccination in one community on a daily basis, that's what we want to do."

The Detroit News requested comment last week from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on research that indicated the sweepstakes doesn't appear to be increasing vaccination rates. The agency has not responded.

Compared to Ohio, other states

The states that have reported the largest jumps in vaccine coverage since July 1 include those that have experienced spikes in cases, like Florida and Arkansas. Their rates have each increased by more than 2 percentage points.

The states that have experienced the lowest increases of 1 percentage point or less are Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Vermont. Of those, Vermont and Hawaii have already achieved overall coverage rates of at least 70%, according to the federal data.

When Whitmer unveiled the MI Shot to Win initiative on July 1, she cited a similar program that Ohio launched in May. While many states have followed suit, Ohio was the first to publicly advance the idea of a raffle — with top prizes of $1 million — to boost vaccinations.

The Democratic governor promised Michigan's effort would be "bigger" and "better" than the one in Ohio.

Ohio officials reported a jump in vaccinations in the week immediately following the debut of their program. But over the first 20 days, the percentage of all Ohio residents who had received their first dose moved from 42.3% to 45.8%, an increase of 3.5 percentage points, according to CDC data. During that same time period, Michigan, which didn't have a lottery program in place, saw a larger increase in vaccination coverage, moving from 44.9% to 48.7%, a boost of 3.8 percentage points.

Over the first 20 days of Michigan's MI Shot to Win initiative, from July 1 through July 21, the state's vaccination coverage rate increased by 1 percentage point. During that same time frame, Ohio, which held its final lottery drawing in June, saw a similar increase: 0.9 percentage points.

Overall, for the entirety of the vaccine campaign, Michigan ranks near the middle of the pack nationally for coverage.

The numbers that have unfolded since Michigan launched its lottery program are "pretty striking," said Richard Czuba, founder of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group, a research firm that studies public opinion.

"This doesn’t motivate the fence-sitters or the vaccine skeptics," said Czuba of the lotteries. "It’s not just Michigan. It’s everywhere. These lotteries are not working."

What comes next

In May, Glengariff Group found that only 6% of unvaccinated Michigan voters said they would be motivated to get the vaccine by a lottery, according to a survey the firm conducted for the Detroit Regional Chamber.

About 92% said such a program would not motivate them. The survey of 600 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Czuba said what does spur hesitant people to get vaccinated are employer-imposed requirements and pressure from friends and family. Government policies requiring vaccinations for certain activities would likely also increase the rates, he said. 

"We would clearly see protests. We would see opposition," Czuba said. "But we would see movements in our vaccination efforts.”

Some Michigan institutions are already instituting vaccine requirements for their employees, including Trinity Health and the Henry Ford Health System as well as the University of Michigan for students who want to live on the Ann Arbor campus. 

The MI Shot to Win sweepstakes doesn't conclude until early August. It's offering daily $50,000 prizes for the newly vaccinated, college scholarships and a top giveaway of $2 million. The money for the initiative comes from federal COVID-19 relief funds.

On Wednesday, Michigan officials revealed that LaTonda Anderson, 51, of Grand Blanc was the winner of the $1 million prize in the contest. Anderson said she had gotten her first vaccine dose in late March in Flint to help safeguard her parents who are in theirs 70s.

“It is the ultimate act of unselfishness," Anderson said.

Yet, the vaccine push in Michigan has been "slow and steady" of late, said Norm Hess, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health. Vaccinations peaked in April, and now it's a "very slow process" to move the numbers upward, he said.

Hess said he's heard little about the vaccine sweepstakes spurring people to get their first dose. But he said outreach programs are continuing across Michigan.

Ebersole Singh, who has been leading the vaccine program at the state level, said canvassing efforts are being launched in tandem with pop-up clinics and targeted ad campaigns.

"This is our time," she said. "We've got to get this done."