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2016 Shaker Heights High School Grad Is Ohio's First Vax-A-Million Winner

Abbigail Bugenske, the first $1 million winner in Ohio’s Vax-a-Million lottery, is originally from Shaker Heights and a 2016 graduate of Shaker Heights High School. [Office of Gov. Mike DeWine]
Abbigail Bugenske, the first $1 million winner in Ohio’s Vax-a-Million lottery, is originally from Shaker Heights and a 2016 graduate of Shaker Heights High School.

Updated: 1:25 p.m., Thursday, May 27, 2021

The first winner of Ohio's $1 million vaccine lottery is Abbigail Bugenske of Silverton, near Cincinnati. And the winner of the scholarship to an Ohio college is Joseph Costello of Englewood.

State officials announced the first winners of the Vax-a-Million lottery, a statewide sweepstakes to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations, Wednesday evening.

Bugenske is originally from Shaker Heights and is a 2016 graduate of Shaker Heights High School. She is one of more than 2.7 million adults who registered for the million-dollar lottery, and Costello is one of more than 100,000 12 to 17-year-olds who entered to win the other prize — a full-ride scholarship to any Ohio university.

The drawing took place Monday but the winners were announced at 7:29 p.m. Wednesday at the end of the Ohio Lottery’s Cash Explosion TV show.

Bugenske was driving from her home in the Cincinnati area to Shaker Heights to visit her parents and shop for a used car when she got the call from Gov. Mike DeWine, she said at a Thursday morning press conference.

“Well, I was screaming enough that my parents thought that I was crying and that something was wrong and when I started yelling that I won a million dollars and I was going to be a millionaire, they told me to calm down,” she said. “Just to sum it up in one word, a whirlwind and 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.”

Winners were picked using a random number generator, and officials had to first verify that the individuals received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine before announcing them publicly. 

Costello, 14, won the scholarship after being vaccinated this past Saturday. His mom, Colleen, said the lottery moved up the family’s vaccination timeline.

“We had intended to get all of our children vaccinated by the end of this month, but because of the initial entry deadline for the contest, we pulled that date forward and made sure everyone was vaccinated,” she said Thursday morning. “So, it did accelerate the timing for us.”

The scholarship money will be placed in a 529 college savings account that can be used for his choice of Ohio schools, which he listed for now as Miami of Ohio, Ohio State or Dayton University.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine instated the million-dollar lottery in an attempt to encourage on-the-fence Ohio residents to get the vaccine, after vaccinations stalled in the state in early May.

Since the lottery was announced, more than 261,000 people have gotten the COVID-19 shot – a more than 60 percent increase in vaccinations, compared to the two weeks before the announcement.

“[The program is] exceeding my wildest expectations,” DeWine said in a Monday press conference.

Didn’t Win? Sign Up For Next Time

There will be four more Vax-a-Million drawings held each week through June 21. Four adults and four young teens will be picked in the coming weeks.

The deadline to enter each drawing is 11:59 p.m. the Sunday before the drawing.

Those who have already registered this week do not have to sign up again, according to state officials.

Ohioans can register online or by phone at 1-833-427-5634.

The lottery 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.

Vaccinations are still available across the state. The mass vaccination clinic at the Wolstein Center will administer the Pfizer vaccine during its 12th and final week, beginning Tuesday, at Cleveland State, DeWine said Thursday.

“The clinic’s last day of operation will be Monday, June 7,” the governor said Thursday. “Pfizer’s the only vaccine approved for those ages 12 and up. So if you’re a parent who’s been thinking about bringing your child to the Wolstein Center for their vaccination, now is the time.”

Those who receive a first dose at the Wolstein Center will be scheduled to receive their second dose at an area Discount Drug Mart location.

Lawmakers, Other States Paying Attention To Lottery

The governor announced the million-dollar lottery incentive in a statewide address May 12 and was immediately met with mixed reactions.

Some legislators, such as Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron), criticized Gov. DeWine for taxpayer dollars for the program.

 “Using millions of dollars in relief funds in a drawing is a grave misuse of money that could be going to respond to this ongoing crisis. Ohioans deserve better than this,” Sykes said in a written statement. “I do hope people continue to get the vaccine and help our state reach herd immunity so our economy and way of life can thrive again.”

The $5 million being used for the lottery is part of federal coronavirus relief funds given to the Ohio Department of Health by a legislative panel, the Ohio Controlling Board.

Lawmakers from the other side of the aisle have also come out against the lottery. State Rep. Jena Powell (R-Arcanum) introduced a bill in the Ohio House Tuesday to reallocate the lottery funds to relief grants for small businesses, and an anti-vaccination group has filed a lawsuit against the lottery in the Ohio Supreme Court.

But not everyone thinks the lottery is a bad idea. Several states have followed suit and announced similar money incentives for vaccinations.

Officials in Maryland, Oregon and New York have launched vaccination lotteries, and smaller-scale efforts are happening in cities like Washington, D.C. and Memphis – where you can get a free drink with your vaccination or enter to win a new car.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.