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Area 'Vaccine Queens' praised by state, federal officials

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Posted at 10:12 PM, Mar 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-23 23:12:38-04

CLEVELAND — As eligibility requirements for the COVID-19 vaccine in Ohio seemingly change every week, some say it’s hard to keep up and the changes are making the task of booking an appointment more confusing than before.

“It's almost like you're saying if no one wants it, then you can have it,” District 12 Representative Juanita Brent said.

Gov. Mike DeWine announced Monday Ohioans as young as 16 can receive the vaccine if the alternative is to throw out an unused dose.

But what does that mean for registration? How often are doses going unused? Brent said access to the vaccine is not equal for all.

“We cannot be dependent upon just doing Internet-based or even with just technology,” Brent said. “In Cleveland Ward 1, our average income is $28,000. That means people are making life and death decisions with the funds that they receive, so you might not have a person who has internet at home. If people are having to go sit in the middle of a parking lot in the middle of the night to fill out their unemployment, people are not particularly making it part of their priority to just look for information about getting vaccinated.”

Marla Zwinggi and Stacey Bene joined forces and became an internet sensation known as the “Vaccine Queens” to serve those without internet access, limited knowledge of technology, or conditions that keep them from leaving their homes.

“We just tipped 1,700 appointments today for people all around Northeast Ohio,” Zwinggi said. “Stacey and I have called mayors. We’ve called county commissioners, boards of health. We've actually said, ‘What is the plan to assist these seniors who are confined to their homes?’”

State and federal entities have taken notice and shared their admiration for the duo’s spreadsheet-based organizational strategy.

“We've been contacted by representatives from the Ohio Department of Health and from FEMA to collaborate with them and it's really quite an honor because I think we all have the same mission, which is shots in arms,” Zwinggi said. “They're not cases. They're not just, ‘Here's a vaccine.’ These are actual stories of humans who live in our state and they're just like us and we need to take care of them.”

Bene said state officials asked late Tuesday for the pair to focus on encouraging those who can get the shot at the Wolstein Center to do so and to save other registrations for underserved communities or groups who may need more assistance.

“We just don't want a single shot to go to waste. We want to get Ohio back up and moving. Trying to get the people who need to utilize places very close to their home. We're trying to get them shots around their corner,” Bene said. “Individuals who are confined to their homes, we’re trying to find vaccines for them. We're working with some very medically fragile people to get them to a location near their home.”

However, DeWine’s latest announcement about preventing wasted vaccines has left many scratching their heads.

“If you're 16 and up, just go. It can kind of sound almost backward at moments, but people have to just focus on we're just trying to get everyone out and vaccinated as much as possible,” Brent said.

Brent commended the Vaccine Queens’ efforts to get Ohioans inoculated but said the responsibility should not all fall on them.

“There should not just be two ladies within the whole state who are able to get so many people engaged in a process of vaccinating. If they have found a better way to do this and engage people, then we need to duplicate them,” Brent said. “It has to be some type of boots on the ground, people walking throughout the community. People are just not always in the loop of watching these press conferences every day at 2:00, so we have to make it our due diligence to knock on their door and say, ‘Hey, you can get vaccinated.’”

But as the number of vaccine-eligible Ohioans grows each week, the dynamic duo shows no signs of quitting.

“It’s that common goal of shots in arms and just returning to normal, some semblance of normal for everyone,” Zwinggi said. “For us, for our children, and for all of these people in Ohio who have suffered so much.”