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West Virginia's COVID-19 vaccine incentives include guns, trucks and cash

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West Virginia is expanding its incentives to encourage residents get vaccinated against COVID-19, with the state later this month starting weekly lottery drawings offering cash, trucks, guns and scholarships to those who've received at least one immunization shot. 

Starting June 20, West Virginia will give out $1 million and other prizes each week up until Aug. 4, when two grand prizes of nearly $1.6 million and $580,000 will be announced, according to state officials. 

Other prizes include two new custom-outfitted trucks, 25 weekend getaways to local state parks, five lifetime hunting and fishing licenses, five custom hunting rifles and five custom hunting shotguns. Two full four-year scholarships to any institution in West Virginia will also be awarded to vaccinated 12- to 25-year-olds.

"The prizes to me are secondary to the fact that we're trying to save your life," West Virginia Governor Jim Justice told a Tuesday news conference at which he detailed the blitz of coming incentives and made an impassioned case for getting vaccinated.

"All of our hospitalizations, all of all our our ICU units, all of our deaths, for the most part, are all people that have not been vaccinated. I don't know how it gets any simpler than that," the Republican governor said. 

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"These vaccinations are amazingly safe and they'll protect you — I don't know how in the world people are sitting on the sidelines still saying, no, I'm not going to do one, I'm not going to do it," Justice continue. "Then they go off and they travel, and then there is absolutely what I would say is a lot of 'sad singing and slow walking,' and that's what goes on at a funeral."

Acknowledging that some might question the practice of essentially bribing people to get immunized against a deadly virus, the governor indicated that logic dictates he do whatever works. 

"If you step back and think, now why in the world would you have to give away something to get somebody vaccinated. Unfortunately it's the way of the world in a lot of situations," Justice reflected. "The faster we get them across the finish line, the more lives we save." 

The state also has a financial incentive to get more resident vaccinated. "If the tab just keeps running, the cost is enormous, the testing costs are enormous, the hospital costs are enormous," he said.

All West Virginians who have received one immunization shot are eligible, but must register to enter the lottery. 

Vaccine sweepstakes

West Virginia continues to offer the choice of a $100 gift card or $100 savings bond to those between ages 16 and 35 as part of an effort unveiled in late April to convince younger residents to roll up their sleeves. 

The lottery has West Virginia joining other states and businesses trying to give hesitant Americans a reason to get vaccinated against a virus that has killed nearly 600,000 Americans. Kroger, the nation's biggest supermarket chain, last week said it would  give $1 million to five customers and free groceries for a year to another 50 to encourage more Americans to get vaccinated. 

Ohio recently reported a spike in the count of those getting vaccinated after its governor said the state would award $1 million to five vaccinated residents, prompting West Virginia's Justice to quip about one of the states bordering his: "I can't stand for Ohio to be ahead of us in anything."

In fact, West Virginia lags not only Ohio but also most of the country when it comes to vaccination rates, ranking 45th among the 50 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ahead of only Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Wyoming, the percentage of West Virginians 18 and older who've received a first shot on Tuesday stood at 49.2%, while that tally came to 56.9% in Ohio, the CDC found. Highest among the states is Vermont, at 82%.

"Why would I take a chance?"

Nearly 2,800 West Virginians have died of COVID, with five people dying of the infection since last Thursday, and 571 new positive cases reported in the state in the last 24 hours, the governor relayed. West Virginia's daily positivity rate is 4%, with 4,550 active cases, the state's lowest count since Oct. 27, 2020. "The good numbers are driven from the standpoint of we continue to get people vaccinated," Justice said.

Of the 207 West Virginians currently hospitalized with the virus, 81 are in intensive care, and in all probability none were vaccinated, Justice said. The same could be said for those who've died, he added. Knowing all that, "Why would I take a chance with my family or myself?"

As of Tuesday, 75% of West Virginians 50 and older had received at least one shot, and 51.2% of eligible residents 12 years and older had received their first shot, according to the state. Recent outbreaks had 14 nursing home residents becoming ill with COVID, all of them unvaccinated, according to the state's chief coronavirus health official, Dr. Clay Marsh. 

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Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday hinted the state could soon follow the lead of states dangling vaccination rewards, with little more than half of Illinois residents fully immunized. 

"There are a lot of different incentives out there, and I hope people take advantage of them," Pritzker told an unrelated news conference in Peoria, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. "We're looking forward to potentially doing a vaccine lottery, as you've heard about in other states."

Lawmakers in Illinois recently approved a budget that includes up to $7 million in prizes for vaccinated adults and as much as $3 million in scholarships for those younger than 18. 

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