When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced that the Buckeye State would give millions of dollars and full-ride university scholarships to a few residents who had gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, some were understandably skeptical.
But when the state announced its first two winners Wednesday, the Vax-a-Million drawing became infinitely more real -- especially for one winner in Greater Cincinnati.
Abbigail Bugenske of Silverton won the first $1 million prize this week, telling DeWine during a May 27 news briefing, "I was completely surprised when I got the call, and I still can't believe it. It was a crazy night."
Bugenske said she was driving to her parents' house when DeWine called to tell her that she was the state's first $1 million Vax-a-Million winner. When she walked into the house, she gave her folks the wrong idea, Bugenske said.
"Well, I was screaming enough that my parents thought that I was crying and that something was wrong," she said. "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 and make sure it wasn't a prank before I really started freaking out. So they grounded me a little bit."
The reality hit Bugenske soon enough, though.
"While we were still talking, I could see notifications coming up on my phone that people were starting to follow me on Instagram and Facebook and message me, and I think that was it for me," Bugenske said. "I knew that my name had actually been announced and I had actually won the Vax-a-Million."
Bugenske said that while she lives in Cincinnati, she grew up in Cleveland, where her parents still reside. She's not yet sure what she'll do with her windfall.
"I had come up to Cleveland from Cincinnati to look at a used car, and I think buying a used car is still in my future," said Bugenske, who graduated from Michigan State University in May.
The Vax-a-Million promotion was created to incentivize wider vaccine adoption in Ohio in the lead-up to June 2, when the state will lift all pandemic health orders. All Ohioans who have received at least one vaccination dose are eligible for Vax-a-Million, in which five adult winners will receive $1 million each. A name will be selected at random from registered and confirmed vaccinated Ohioans, and one winner per week over the course of five weeks will walk away with a life-changing sum.
In addition, vaccinated Ohio residents who are ages 12-17 can enter to win a full-ride, four-year scholarship to any Ohio state college or university. As with the adults, five winners will be named, with one drawn per week.
Winners are announced on Wednesdays. DeWine said during the briefing that he plans to call each of the winners.
Representatives from the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Lottery said that hundreds of thousands of Ohioans entered the Vax-a-Million drawing on May 18, the first day of the promotion.
In Ohio, 44.90% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of May 27. Only 39.36% are fully vaccinated, according to Ohio's COVID-19 dashboard. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a “fully vaccinated” person is one who is two weeks past their second dose of a two-dose vaccine (Pfizer and Moderna) or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine (Johnson & Johnson/Janssen).
Ohioans must be at least 12 years old for the Pfizer vaccine and 18 years old for the Moderna and J&J vaccines. Parental consent is required for minors. Find information and vaccine locations on Ohio's coronavirus portal.
Bugenske said that she received her first dose of the Moderna vaccine "the first week I was allowed to" and thinks the Vax-a-Million promotion has merit.
"Just hearing the numbers of how many people signed up just because of this Vax-a-Million idea, it's clearly working and I think that's great," she said.
Joseph Costello, who is wrapping up his eighth-grade year, was Wednesday's under-18 winner for a full-ride scholarship to an Ohio university. Costello lives with his parents in Englewood near Dayton.
Watch DeWine's conversation with Bugenske and Costello during the May 27 briefing below.