Credit: Billy Penn illustration

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

In an effort to get more people vaccinated, Philadelphia is following in the footsteps of other places that’ve offered cash incentives to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but with a unique psychological twist.

The city is holding what’s known as a “regret sweepstakes.”

Every two weeks starting June 21 and ending July 19, a pair of residents will be selected to win $50,000 each. Each of the three drawings also comes with a slew of secondary $5k and $1k prizes, for 10 awards overall.

The catch: officials will only hand over the money if you already got your shot. (Sign up here.)

That knowledge — that the phone might ring and you’d have to tell the caller, “Uh, no, actually, I didn’t get the vaccine yet” and miss out on the windfall — is a powerful motivator to go out and do the damn thing, according to behavioral scientist Katy Milkman.

Milkman is a researcher at UPenn’s Wharton School and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, so the effect of using money to encourage good behavior is something she studies full time.

“Just imagine the regret you’d feel if you got that call and discovered you would have won $50,000 If only you had gotten your vaccine,” Milkman said.

Milkman’s center put together the plan with Kevin Volpp of UPenn’s Center for Health Incentives & Behavioral Economics, and Ala Stanford of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

The UPenn collaborators not only came up with the idea for the Philly Vax Sweepstakes, they’re also putting up the cash, which will total $400,000 in prizes over the course of three drawings.

“Even if we get a pretty small percentage of people to be vaccinated. It’s more than we’ve had before … and this, I think, is a good idea. It’s not costing the city money,” said Mayor Jim Kenney.

As of the sweepstakes announcement, just over half of adults in Philadelphia were fully vaccinated (52%), and more than two-thirds had gotten at least one dose (67%), per health department data. A month later, those numbers have gone up to 59% and 73%, respectively.

The goal, said acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole, is 100%. “We aren’t setting up a herd immunity goal of 70% or 80% or 85%. We want everybody vaccinated.”

There’s an equity component, too, providing an extra push for people in areas where fewer have already gotten the vaccine.

Each of the three drawings will pull from a database that contains almost all residents in the city — but priority will be given to one of 20 ZIP codes that have the lowest rates of vaccination. The chosen ZIP will make up half the total winners for that drawing, giving those residents 100x the chance of scoring some cash, according to the researchers.

Those boosted chances should cause a lot of chatter in the chosen ZIP, said Stanford, of the BDCC, whose group plans to do a major comms campaign to get the word out.

“We’re gonna go hard,” Stanford said. “[It’s] not just the folks that are newly vaccinated, but also the folks that have been vaccinated since December and January that live in that ZIP code. And that word of mouth, as it goes, will really spread, I believe.”

Here’s what you need to know about the Philly Vax Sweepstakes.

Do you have to sign up to be eligible?

No, but you should register if you want to be sure your name is in the pot.

The researchers have a database that includes more than a million names, nearly everyone in the city. But they can’t be sure the information is up to date and accurate, so they’re encouraging people to sign up.

The sweepstakes is only valid for residents of Philadelphia who are 18 or older, and you can only enter once.

How do you register?

Registration can be completed 24 hours a day in English or Spanish in the following ways:

  • Online at
  • By phone at 1-877-642-5666 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • By texting “Phillyvax” to 215-608-9799

When are the drawings and what are the prizes?

The three drawings are on Monday, June 21; Tuesday, July 6; and Monday, July 19.

At each drawing, six individuals will win $1,000, four will win $5,000, and two will win $50,000.

Winners will be notified by whatever kind of info the researchers have: phone, text, or if they only have a mailing address, by next-day priority mail, according to Wharton’s Milkman.

What’s unique about Philly’s vaccine incentive program?

Many of the programs out there are only available to people who haven’t yet gotten vaccinated. That ends up feeling like punishment for people who got inoculated early, not cool.

Philly’s winners can be any vaccinated person in the city — whether you got the vaccine back in January or just one day before the drawing.

Then there’s the “regret” factor.

Because the drawing pulls from a list of all residents, not just a database of vaccine recipients, it’s entirely possible someone who gets picked won’t have gotten their shot yet. You don’t want to be that person — and behavioral science shows that worry provides really good motivation to act, per Milkman.

How will we know if it’s working?

Other cities and states have seen big jumps in vaccination rates after rolling out incentives. Most famously, Ohio’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery boosted rates 45%, per officials there.

In Philly, the team of UPenn researchers will be actively studying the program as it rolls out, so they can see how well it’s working and use the learnings to advise other cities who want to try it — or even suggest that Philadelphia extend the program.

“As quickly as we can analyze the data, we will get it out there to the public,” said Milkman. “So everyone knows, was this a good investment? Should we scale up the investment? Should we extend this program? Should we have more selected ZIP codes?”

Who is behind the project?

Partners in the Philly Vax Sweepstakes include:

The team talked to several different government groups about the potential for a project like this before notching an agreement with Philadelphia.

“We talked to a number of other cities and states,” said Millkman, the Wharton behavioral health scientist. “And we’re so excited to be able to do this in the City of Philadelphia — in our home city — to make an impact on this community.”

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.