COLUMBUS, Ohio — The first winner of Ohio’s first $1 million Vax-a-Million vaccination incentive prize was driving to her family’s home in suburban Cleveland when she received a call about the good news — from Gov. Mike DeWine.
A few minutes later Abbigail Bugenske was in her parents’ house screaming so loudly they thought she was crying.
“A whirlwind,” Bugenske, 22, said Thursday morning during a news conference. “It absolutely has not processed yet. I am still digesting it — and I like to say that it feels like this is happening to a different person. I cannot believe it.”
Bugenske is a mechanical engineer working for GE Aviation in suburban Cincinnati, and has no plans to quit her job. She grew up in Shaker Heights near Cleveland and is a 2020 graduate of Michigan State University. She said she plans to donate to charities and buy a car, but then invest most of it.
The winner of a full college scholarship was eighth grader Joseph Costello of Englewood near Dayton.
“Very excited,” Costello said as he sat between his parents, Colleen and Rich, during the virtual news conference. Although it’s a long way off, Joseph said he’s thought about Ohio State or Miami of Ohio for college.
Colleen Costello said she got the call from the governor as she left work Wednesday. At first she thought it was a recording, then realized it was DeWine himself.
“I was really thankful at that moment that there was a bench nearby, because I needed to sit down,” she said.
DeWine visited with the Costello family in person along with his wife, Fran DeWine, on Wednesday, after the announcement. He said he didn’t know the names of the winners until shortly before he made the calls.
“Calling someone and telling them that they’ve won million dollars is a great thing, and calling a family and telling them that they have a scholarship paid for four years is also fun,” the governor said.
Bugenske said she received the Moderna vaccine as soon as she was eligible, long before the lottery was announced. The Costellos said they were already vaccinated and had planned to have their children vaccinated by the end of the month, but the lottery announcement inspired them to move those appointments up.
More than 2.7 million adults signed up for the $1 million prize and more than 104,000 children ages 12 to 17 entered the drawing for the college scholarship, which includes tuition, room and board, and books. Four more $1 million and college scholarship winners will be announced each Wednesday for the next four weeks.
DeWine, a Republican, announced the program May 12 to boost lagging vaccination rates.
The Ohio Lottery conducted the first drawing Monday afternoon at its draw studio in Cleveland using a random number generator to pick the winners ahead of time, and then confirmed the eligibility of the ultimate winner.
Participants must register to enter by phone or via the Vax-a-Million website. Teens can register themselves, but parents or legal guardians must verify their eligibility. The names of entrants who don’t win will be carried over week to week. The deadline for new registrations is just before midnight on Sunday.
“I know that some may say, ‘DeWine, you’re crazy! This million-dollar drawing idea of yours is a waste of money,’” the governor said when he announced the incentive. But with the vaccine now readily available, the real waste, “is a life lost to COVID-19,” the governor said.
The concept seemed to work, at least initially. The number of people in Ohio age 16 and older who received their initial COVID-19 vaccine jumped 33% in the week after the state announced its million-dollar incentive lottery, according to an Associated Press analysis.
But the same review also found that vaccination rates are still well below figures from earlier in April and March.
More than 5.2 million people in Ohio had at least started the vaccination process as of Monday, or about 45% of the state. About 4.6 million people are done getting vaccinated, or 39% of the state. Nationally, more than 165 million Americans have started the vaccination process, or about nearly 50% of the population. More than 131 million are fully vaccinated, or nearly 40%.
Vax-a-Million is open to permanent Ohio residents who have received either the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or their first part of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccination.
DeWine’s proposal inspired similar vaccine-incentive lotteries in Colorado, Maryland, New York state and Oregon.
In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis says the state will have a weekly lottery for five residents to win $1 million Tuesday to incentive COVID-19 vaccinations. Colorado is setting aside $5 million of federal coronavirus relief funds that would have gone toward vaccine advertising for five residents to win $1 million each.