Pete Vegas had just returned from vacation with his five grandkids when he received a strange text telling him he'd won $1 million. He thought it was a hoax.
Vegas, a Colorado resident, was a winner of the state's COVID-19 vaccine lottery, designed to incentivize people to get the shot. He's planning to use the money to fight climate change.
"My immediate reaction was guilt," said Vegas, 65. "Both my wife and I said, wow, we can't keep this money. We have to do something good with it."
But Vegas wasn't the only American to win big this summer. At least 24 people nationwide claimed a $1 million prize. Two people won even larger sums. Many more took home smaller cash prizes, scholarships, vacations or other incentives.
For the lucky few winners, cashing in on a pandemic that has killed nearly 5 million people worldwide is a complicated feeling. Some, like Vegas, have altruistic plans for their winnings. But all said getting vaccinated is the greatest form of altruism.
"It’s the best form of kindness that we can do so easily, by just going to get the vaccine," said winner Stephanie Sharp, 41.
They won COVID-19 vaccine lotteries. Now what?
All of the lottery winners who spoke to USA TODAY said the possibility of winning a cash prize didn't motivate them to get vaccinated. Some states allowed people who had already received the shots to be entered into the lotteries, and some winners had already been vaccinated when the lotteries were announced.
Several studies suggest the taxpayer-funded gambles didn't ultimately increase vaccinations. A study of vaccine lotteries in 19 states published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found "no statistically significant association" between lottery announcements and the number of vaccinations.
Multiple winners said they used the funds to pay off bills, help family members and save for the future. Tabatha Duckett, who services buildings in Maryland, won $40,000 in the state's $2 Million "VaxCash" program.
"I have grandkids, so that's what I'm doing, taking care of them," Duckett said.
Two winners declined to comment, citing discomfort in benefiting from the ongoing pandemic.
Christine Duval won $2 million in Michigan's "MI Shot to Win" sweepstakes. She said one of the first things she did was make an anonymous donation to a mental health charity.
Mark Cline, 64, won $1 million in Ohio's "Vax-a-Million" lottery. Cline said he was already retired and "OK with money" before he won. He said he used some of the funds to help out family and fix up his house. He also set up two funds through community foundations.
Cline used to work as a paramedic and volunteer firefighter, and one of the funds supports emergency responders in Jefferson County, Ohio, he said. The other supports "a variety of causes" in Union County, Ohio, including support for emergency responders, church groups and charities.
"I just hope that everybody goes out, tries to help take care of their friends and neighbors by getting vaccinated so they are not transmitting the coronavirus," Cline said.
For fully vaccinated people who still become infected with COVID-19, any risk of transmitting the virus is "substantially reduced," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transmission between unvaccinated people is the primary cause of continued spread, the agency says.
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Sharp, a child psychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado, won $1 million in Colorado's lottery. She was visiting her father, who has stage 4 cancer, when she got the call. Then fully vaccinated, it was her first time visiting her father since the beginning of the pandemic.
Sharp said the first thing she did was call a financial planner. Sharp and her husband, an Army veteran, are looking into organizations that support veterans, children with special needs and children without access to quality education.
Sharp said she and her husband, an emergency room nurse, were among the first to get vaccinated because they work in health care, and they're hoping to vaccinate their 6-year-old son soon. For the majority of the pandemic, Sharp's husband worked in an ICU.
"He saw the worst side of COVID – people on ventilators, people dying from COVID," Sharp said.
She added: "If this (lottery) helped in any way to get people on the fence about vaccines vaccinated, that I feel great about."
Battling climate change with lottery winnings
Vegas, the Colorado winner hoping to fight climate change, plans to invest in regenerative agriculture.
"I can't save the world, but I can do my part," Vegas said. "People today do not realize that our grandkids are going to face a very different world of climate change."
"Regenerative agriculture" describes farming and grazing practices that rebuild soil organic matter and restore soil biodiversity to improve the water cycle and draw more carbon out of the atmosphere and back into the earth.
"The idea is you use less chemicals, you use less fertilizer, and in particular you till the ground less," Vegas said.
Vegas said he grew up in Louisiana and started his career as a farmer "using conventional farming methods." He later started his own company, Sage V Foods, which cooks and freezes rice at a plant in Arkansas. Vegas said after being in agriculture his whole life, it's "embarrassing" to have only recently discovered regenerative agriculture.
The first thing Vegas did with his winnings was hold a Zoom meeting with his farmers in Arkansas, California, Thailand and Argentina where he brought in experts in regenerative farming to teach the concept.
Vegas said, this year, he's offering to pay for the cost of seed if his farmers grow cover crops, which protect the soil from erosion and nutrient loss.
He's also funding some experiments in Northern California to try to regeneratively grow rice. Vegas said he's expecting the initial experiments won't be profitable for the growers he works with, so he's guaranteeing them that they'll make as much as they would on a normal crop.
While Vegas is looking to prevent an impending crisis, he encouraged Americans to do their part to combat the ongoing one.
"Vaccines are not just about protecting yourselves, it’s about protecting everyone," Vegas said. "I think everybody should be getting vaccinated to put this thing away."
Follow Breaking News Reporter Grace Hauck on Twitter @grace_hauck.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID vaccine lottery winners plan to use cash for their communities