When it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, you Nebraskans don’t know how good you have it. Be glad you don’t live in my native state of Ohio. As I write this, two 40-something suburban Cleveland mothers are working in sweatpants from their kitchen tables on 12-year-old computers to help Ohioans get COVID vaccines.
Marla Zwinggi and Stacey Bene have scheduled 1,000 COVID shots for strangers in the past month because Ohio’s vaccine system is such a tangled mess that people don’t know how or where to find vaccines. Zwinggi and Bene don’t have degrees in political science or public health. What they do have is drive, empathy and, increasingly, anger.
Zwinggi is the saint who helped my twin sister in Ashtabula, Ohio, find a place where she could get her COVID shot. That’s how I learned about her.
It began Feb. 1 when Zwinggi scheduled a vaccine for her father. A few days later, she arranged shots for her mother and her best friend. Once she had scheduled six or seven people, “I realized I could do this,” she told me when I called her Tuesday afternoon.
She began walking down her street and knocking on neighbors’ doors to ask if they needed help. Word began to spread. People began to call her,
“I was at a crossroads,” she said. “If I offered my services on social media, I knew it could be overwhelming, but I wanted to help people.” She plunged in.
She started online. She made connections with Facebook groups she belongs to. Within two weeks, she had booked 102 people. The following week, she did 100 more.
Radio and TV stations began calling. Zwinggi appeared on NBC’s “Today Show,” too.
Meanwhile, in the suburb of Medina about 50 miles away on the other side of Cleveland, a woman saw Zwinggi’s TV interview. Her daughter, Stacy Bene, was doing work similar to Zwinggi’s in Medina. Bene had set up 187 appointments, almost as many as Zwingii’s 217. Bene called Zwinggi. The two women bonded instantly and became a team. Since setting up vaccinequeens.com and a Facebook page, the pair has booked 1,100 appointments. They work for free.
“We don’t expect anything. Our goal is simply to get people to the finish line of this overwhelming process,” Zwinggi told me.
She and Bene check websites of supermarkets and pharmacies that are offering vaccines. If those sites require “too much medical info,” Zwinggi moves on, but few places schedule shots more than 10 days out, and many are booked.
Sites in downtown Cleveland require suburbanites to drive into the city, pay to park, walk to the vaccination site and stand in line, potentially for hours.
The Vaccine Queens have taught people how to do text messaging. They’ve assisted older people and residents of under-represented communities who don’t have computers. They have explained the types of vaccines on their Facebook page and posted informational videos. Now calls are coming from as far as Cincinnati, 250 miles away.
“It’s been overwhelming,” Zwinggi said. “I’ve gotten 200 emails the past day. We want to help every single person, but we still have 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds who need vaccines.”
Zwinggi is devoting 10 hours a day to this while home-schooling her three under-age-10 children, something she’s done since COVID broke out a year ago. She got her first shot in February when she volunteered at a vaccination clinic for first responders. She will get her second and final dose Monday.
With frustration, she told me that Ohio finally unveiled its new gettheshot.coronavirus.ohio.gov site not long ago, but it simply spits out a list of pharmacies near an inquirer’s ZIP code. Further clicks take people to those pharmacies’ home pages. People still must call to schedule their own appointments.
Zwinggi is grateful to be helping friends and strangers during the COVID crisis, but as I explained Nebraska’s simple, one-stop electronic vaccine registration system, she sounded envious.
“No one contacts us to say they are afraid of the vaccine. They just want to know how to get it,” Zwinggi said.
As I said, Nebraskans should count their lucky stars.