Wyatt Otness wanted to get the COVID-19 vaccine once his age group became eligible.
“I decided to get vaccinated because I can protect my family and my friends when I’m around them and just protect everyone else that I’m around,” the 13-year-old Fairbanksan said.
Wyatt heard about the Alaska Chamber’s vaccine sweepstakes program called Give AK A Shot on the radio, and asked his mom, Erin, to enter him after his vaccine appointment.
Erin said she was not prepared for the prize — $49,000 in scholarship money for Wyatt plus a $10,000 cash prize for her — because she is also vaccinated.
“I was like, ‘Oh cool I wonder what we won, maybe a t-shirt or something,’” she said. “And then I was like, ‘Oh wait! We won this!’ So it was pretty exciting.”
The Alaska Chamber wrapped up its sweepstakes program last week, an effort to encourage more Alaskans to get their COVID-19 vaccines. Over the course of eight weeks, starting in September, the chamber awarded almost a total of $1 million to around two dozen vaccinated Alaskans.
But it’s unclear how effective the program has been at increasing Alaska’s vaccination rate.
The sweepstakes program was funded by federal CARES Act money through a grant from the state Department of Health and Social Services.
About 60% of Alaskans 12 and up are now fully vaccinated. The vast majority of patients hospitalized with COVID in the state are unvaccinated.
According to data from The New York Times, Alaska has led the nation in COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents for weeks. Almost every region of Alaska is at a high transmission level and ICU beds remain scarce, and health officials have repeated for months that the vaccine is the best tool to decrease the spread of the virus.
Alaska Chamber CEO Kati Capozzi said they were glad to organize the sweepstakes in partnership with the state. She sees vaccines as a way to get the economy back on track by keeping people healthy and out of the hospital.
“COVID has cost businesses a ton of money over the last 18 months, between workers having to isolate, workers getting sick, all the small businesses that had to shut down,” she said. “Especially in Anchorage, specifically, there were three separate rounds of shutdowns over the last year.”
Each vaccine sweepstakes drawing awarded one winner $49,000 — cash for adults and scholarship funds for 12- to 17-year-olds. The majority of the drawings were reserved for newly vaccinated Alaskans, but two were set aside for anyone vaccinated prior to the contest opening.
Even so, the vast majority of entries came from residents who were vaccinated before the sweepstakes began, according to Alaska Chamber data. Of nearly 120,000 entries, only 5,741 came from newly vaccinated residents.
“We knew that we’re kind of on the uphill in terms of getting people vaccinated,” Capozzi said. “This was targeted to a pretty small group of people. So the majority of folks were pre-vaccinated, and that’s what we expected to see.”
Vaccine incentives are common in Alaska and in other states. They range from a free beer to direct payments for getting your shot. Economists nationwide are still determining how effective incentives are at boosting vaccination numbers.
There’s some evidence that incentives make some groups of vaccine-hesitant people mistrustful and less likely to get the shot. Capozzi says she’s heard some criticism that the program is equivalent to a “bribe” to get vaccinated.
“A bribe is something that you would offer everybody, like we’re gonna give everyone $49,000 to do it. This is a motivating factor,” she said. “There’s a bunch of reasons to get vaccinated — if this is one reason why you finally decide to do it, then great. We don’t see it as a bribe at all. We’re not forcing anyone to do it.”
University of Alaska Anchorage economist Kevin Berry is studying the effectiveness of the Alaska Chamber’s sweepstakes. He said it does look like there has been a small bump in the rate of vaccinations in Alaska since the program started, but it’s hard to tease out what’s driving it.
“I’m nervous about putting specific numbers to the bump due to the program because there’s a bunch of other things happening simultaneously,” he said. “There’s federal mandates, there’s case counts increasing statewide, full hospitals that people are hearing about through the media that might also incentivize somebody to get vaccinated.”
Two recent winners of the sweepstakes said mostly family reasons prompted them to get the vaccine.
Anchorage resident Amber Shanagin, 30, said she didn’t know about the sweepstakes until after she got her shot. She was initially hesitant about the vaccine, but said stories about people not being able to visit sick loved ones in the hospital changed her mind.
“My mom was kind of pressuring me to because most of my immediate family members already had,” she said.
The day she got her shot in late September, Shanagin’s mom told her about the sweepstakes, and she decided she might as well enter. A week later she got a call from the Chamber saying that she’d won.
“I thought she was joking!” Shanagin laughed.
And Leo Roehl, 50, put off getting vaccinated twice when he couldn’t find rides to the local clinic in Dillingham. But after getting and recovering from COVID, he had a doctor’s appointment scheduled anyway and decided to get his vaccine at the same time.
“I was thinking about my mom. My mom was really worried about me getting sick with COVID and she’s an elder, she’s over 70. And then I was thinking about my grandkids, they’re 7 and 5. So that was another reason,” he said.
As Alaska continues to lead the nation’s COVID case rate, Berry said the sweepstakes might be a minor consideration in someone’s decision to get vaccinated, but it’s less important why people are choosing to get the vaccine.
“At this point, it’s better for the state, better for society in general, to have more people vaccinated regardless of what happens,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that feed into that decision for people. And anything that pushes more people to get the shot is good.”