OKLAHOMA CITY — Bolstered by catchy slogans like “Your Shot to Summer,” “Vax-a-Million,” and “Vax 2 the Max,” nearly 20 states are going all out to woo vaccine-hesitant residents in a bid to boost vaccination rates.

Leaders in those states said they’re finding “vaccine lotteries” and incentive programs, which leverage millions in federal coronavirus aid, are boosting faltering COVID-19 vaccination rates.

But even as Oklahoma’s per capita COVID-19 vaccination rates have dropped to 11th worst in the nation, state leaders are reluctant to launch their own incentive program.

"Anyone who wants a vaccine can get one and Gov. (Kevin) Stitt believes it is unnecessary for the government to incentivize vaccination," said his spokeswoman, Carly Atchison.

According to the National Governors Association, some of those other states are offering things like $5 million drawings, trucks, guns, full rides to state colleges, free amusement park tickets, employee bonuses, and hunting and fishing licenses. Alabama is offering the chance for its residents to drive on the Talladega Superspeedway.

The Ohio Department of Health, which is running the “Vax-a-Million” promotion, offers any Ohio adult who has received a COVID-19 vaccination the opportunity to win one of five $1 million prizes. Youth between the ages of 12-17 can win one of five full-ride scholarships. The state said it has seen a 28% increase in shots since it announced the incentive on May 12.

“Ohio’s Vax-a-Million drawing was designed to bring attention and excitement to vaccination efforts around the state,” said Stephanie McCloud, the director, in a statement. “This data showing significant increases in vaccination numbers during the two weeks since the contest was announced demonstrates it is working.”

Keith Reed, Oklahoma’s deputy commissioner of health, said the state is “in discussions regarding possible incentives to increase vaccine uptake, but at this time we do not have any definitive plans for an incentive plan such as a vaccine lottery.”

He said his agency is continuing to ensure the vaccine is readily available and is making it as easy as possible to get vaccinated.

“Oklahoma had a really strong start with vaccinations, but our numbers have really declined significantly in recent weeks,” said Dr. George Monks, a Tulsa physician and past president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association.

His group believes vaccine lotteries are a great way to encourage people who may be on the fence to finally take that step.

“There’s some things we’re doing well to increase outreach … but if we’re really hoping to get a 70% or 80% threshold, I think it’s worth exploring some of these financial incentives that other states have done,” Monks said.

He said the lotteries and incentive programs serve a dual purpose. Not only do they potentially motivate vaccine-hesitant people, they also help states market the vaccination effort by increasing enthusiasm and interest.

“There’s been several other states who have done it with incredible success,” he said.

Neighboring New Mexico on Tuesday announced it would offer up to $10 million in prize money to any resident who has received a vaccine. A grand prize winner will receive $5 million when the sweepstakes ends in August. Residents also have a chance to win up to $250,000 in weekly drawings.

As of Thursday, the program already had 144,963 registrants. It is funded by COVID-19 federal funds, said Jim Walton, spokesman with the New Mexico Department of Health.

“We are seeing an uptick in vaccinations, but it’s a little early to determine how the sweepstakes are affecting the number of vaccinations,” he said.

New Mexico is a Top 10 state in vaccine uptake, according to the CDC.

Oklahoma’s others neighbors rank among the worst in per capita vaccination uptake, according to the CDC. Arkansas ranked 5th worst, Missouri 13th worst, Texas, 15th worst and Kansas, 16th worst.

Of those, only Arkansas currently offers a vaccine incentive program, according to the National Governors Association. That state offers executive branch state employees a $100 bonus. Residents are also eligible to receive $20 toward a hunting and fishing license or a $20 lottery ticket that could win them $1 million, according to the group.

Liza Greve, executive director of Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights advocacy group, said she isn’t confident that a lottery would be enough to sway a lot of vaccine-hesitant Oklahomans. Her group advocates for immunization parental choice.

Greve said some Oklahomans would get the vaccine for a chance to win, but a lot still would not. She said at the grassroots level, many Oklahomans are still reluctant to get vaccinated because of concerns about side effects and what they view as a lack of reliable data.

“If they have real concerns about side effects, I don’t think a donut or a lottery or a gift card is going to necessarily make up for that,” she said. “I think the best thing if you want to push people in that direction is to create some better guardrails collecting data dealing with some of the concerns that are out there.

“Transparency, those types of things, would help ease people’s minds versus giving free things,” she said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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