On October 5, 2021, the Seminole Tribe of Florida held a vaccine lottery. The draw awarded at least $3 million in federal COVID relief money in prizes as an incentive for tribal members to get the shot.
But some critics within the tribe have questioned whether the money was misused, and claim that that many eligible, vaccinated members were not entered and received nothing from the fund.
They have also criticized what they perceive as a murky anonymity around who ultimately claimed the prizes, watchdog news site Florida Bulldog reports.
Shot of a Lifetime
As a sovereign nation, the tribe is well within its rights to hold such a lottery, as many states chose to do during the pandemic, although their efficacy as an incentive is open to debate.
The US Treasury allowed tribal governments to use COVID relief funds for financial incentives for vaccination. But that’s provided “such costs are reasonably proportional to the expected public health benefit.”
Some Seminoles argue they weren’t. The matter has sparked friction among the tribe, which is one of the wealthiest Native American gaming operators in the US and owns the Hard Rock casino brand.
The controversial lottery was one of several issues mentioned in a recall petition that aimed, and failed, to topple incumbent Tribal Council Chairman Marcellus Osceola last month.
The petition was signed by 285 members, above the necessary quota of 20% of voters who backed Osceola at his 2019 reelection. It was authored by tribal member Laura Billie, who called the use of the funds “improper.”
She also makes the incendiary – and, according to Osceola, false – claim that “tribal members also have knowledge that the Chairman’s illegitimate son, who is a minor, was the [first prize] million-dollar winner.”
In a Tribal Council meeting last month, Osceola denied any impropriety and emphasized that the decision to hold the lottery had been taken by the entire tribal council, not just himself. That’s in a transcript seen by the Bulldog.
Of the latter allegation, he said: “[…the] false claim of a million-dollar winner being my illegitimate son, you know, that has repercussions, those allegations, because, you know, again, defamation of character, slander. People get sued for a lot less.”
All in Vein?
Research published by the University of Denver, admittedly a week after the Seminoles held their draw, suggested that vaccine lotteries don’t really work.
Looking at 19 states that employed the tactic, researchers calculated the number of shots administered per 1,000 people, both before and after the lotteries were introduced.
Then they compared the figures to those states with no vaccine lotteries. Adjusting for a variety of factors, such as a region’s wealth, population, the number of COVID-19 cases, and political leanings, they found “no statistically significant” difference to vaccination uptake between states with and without vaccine lotteries.
Researchers speculated that the lack of a guaranteed outcome in a lottery draw might fail to motivate people and suggested direct payments would be more effective. They also wondered whether the funds might be better spent on programs that educated people about vaccination and countered misinformation.
Anonymity Crucial for Health Reasons
This was a route taken by many other tribal governments that opted to spread payments more thinly, rewarding all vaccinated members, not just a lucky few. It’s a tactic that Billie supports.
“The way I see this is the COVID funds are to benefit the people … In this case they used the money for a lottery and a lot of the people did not benefit from that lottery, more than 80%,” she told the Bulldog.
In a statement, the Seminole Tribal Council said: “It was documented that many Native Americans were vaccine-hesitant, and unvaccinated Seminoles of all ages were getting sick and dying.
Winners were chosen at random via computer-selected names of all vaccinated members. To ensure a fair outcome, one non-Tribe staff member from the Tribe’s Health, IT and Police Departments were the only individuals present at the time of the drawing.
“The selected names were not made public due to privacy requirements for all health records. […] It is impossible to know how many lives were saved. Any suggestion of impropriety in any aspect of the program is absolutely not true.”
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