Someone from Marin just won California’s $1.5 million COVID vaccine lottery

If you’re vaccinated and get a call from a 916 area code in the next couple of days, make sure you answer the phone. It could be a state official calling to tell you you’re a millionaire.

Capping off weeks of giveaways in a bid to convince more vaccine-wary residents to get inoculated against the deadly coronavirus, the state on Tuesday picked the 10 winners for California’s biggest COVID vaccine prizes —  $1.5 million checks — the same day we celebrated reopening after 15 months of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions.

“We’re here because of your hard work,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at the drawing from a stage at Universal Studios Hollywood, surrounded by Optimus Prime, minions and other animated characters from the theme park.

But don’t get too excited if you’re from the Bay Area. Just one of the 10 big winners hailed from the region, specifically Marin County. Four came from Los Angeles County while Riverside, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, Stanislaus and Ventura counties each boasted one winner.

Tuesday’s winners — who have only been identified by county — represent something of a departure from 30 earlier winners selected to receive $50,000 each. Roughly a third of those residents call the Bay Area home.

So how did California’s vaccine incentive program work out? And did it really drive vaccine-hesitant folks in parts of the state with the lowest vaccine rates to get in line for a jab?

Every resident in California — with a few exceptions like the governor himself, prisoners and state lottery workers — who received at least one shot was eligible to win, a pool of about 22 million people.

But since more than a quarter, 26%, of vaccinated Californians live in Los Angeles, the county was more than well-represented among winners.

Santa Clara County, with 6% of the state’s vaccinated residents, and Alameda with 5%, were both shut out from Tuesday’s big prizes. Just 5.75% of vaccinated Californians live in the state’s smallest 33 counties, meaning the way the lottery-style giveaway is set up favors populated, highly vaccinated counties. But rural Stanislaus, home to 1.1% of vaccinated Californians, beat the odds with a million-dollar winner on Tuesday.

Other states have designed their lotteries to improve the odds for people in communities with low vaccination rates, like Oregon, which will award $10,000 checks to vaccinated residents in each of its 36 counties.

If California had taken a similar approach, a vaccinated resident of Yuba County — where about 25,595 people have had at least one dose — would have had a much better chance of winning a prize than in heavily vaccinated San Francisco County, where nearly 80% of eligible residents, or roughly 634,000 people, have had at least one dose.

There’s an argument to be made for either model, said Daniel Ostrov, a math professor at Santa Clara University.

“If the point of the money is to get more people vaccinated, I would guess the county-based model would probably be more effective,” Ostrov said. “But you have to balance that with fairness and Oregon’s system could be seen as less fair.”

“It’s like the House versus the Senate,” Ostrov added, referring to the U.S. House of Representatives, where state representation is based on population size, and the Senate, where each state gets two representatives regardless of how many residents live there.

Either way, the chances of winning in California’s Vax for the Win incentive program were higher than for the regular lottery. According to Lottery USA, the odds of someone with a single lottery ticket winning the Mega Millions Jackpot are about one in 302.6 million.

But while you have one year to claim the Mega Millions jackpot in California, vaccine lotto winners have only 96 hours from the time they are first contacted to accept their prize money. If a winner can’t be reached or turns down the money, an alternate will be randomly selected. That happened twice in the $50,000 drawings: Winners from Santa Clara and San Diego counties missed out and were replaced by alternates in Sacramento and Monterey.

While the big giveaways might be over, the state is still trying to encourage unvaccinated residents to get a shot by passing out $50 gift cards to those who decide to get jabbed. The state will also give away a series of vacation packages to vaccinated adults in July. Some counties are offering local prizes for getting inoculated. Santa Clara County on Tuesday said it would launch a concert ticket raffle to encourage young people to get a shot.

And, Newsom said, in certain job sectors where vaccination rates remain stubbornly low — including police and fire departments — the state is working with trusted messengers to convince people of the importance and safety of the vaccine.

“We’re not anticipating any mandates at this moment,” the governor said.

Assisting Newsom in announcing Tuesday’s winners was Helen Cordova, an ICU nurse who was the first in the state to get vaccinated.

“I am feeling so emotional,” Cordova said, adding that the coronavirus represented one of the hardest points of her career. “It does a number on you.”