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Wolstein Center Mass Clinic Closes As Ohio Pivots To New Vaccine Strategy

The mass vaccination site at Cleveland State's Wolstein Center is closing after twelve weeks of operation at 8 p.m. on June 7. [Natalia Garcia / ideastream]
The mass vaccination site at Cleveland State's Wolstein Center is closing after twelve weeks of operation at 8 p.m. on June 7. [Natalia Garcia / ideastream]

The mass COVID-19 vaccination site at the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University is closing today after twelve weeks of operations and more than 260,000 COVID-19 vaccines administered.

The center opened in March when there was a high demand for COVID-19 vaccinations. The site could administer 6,000 vaccines per day, and appointments filled up fast, with people often having to check back several times per day to see if slots opened up.

But as vaccine interest waned across the state, the number of people using the site declined, and the clinic eventually began taking walk-ins.

The floor of the Wolstein Center arena at Cleveland State at one point had hundreds of chairs set up to accommodate the mass numbers of people getting vaccinated at the site. Now, the floor is empty, as the clinic is closing after twelve weeks of operation June 7. [Ohio National Guard]

The state’s strategy for vaccine distribution is now shifting away from mass vaccination clinics like the Wolstein Center, said Dr. Michelle Medina, Cleveland Clinic's associate chief of clinical operations of community health.

"[When the clinics opened] we were very concerned about the [variant] strains circulating, and we were concerned that if the strains took over, that we wouldn't be able to get ahead of it fast enough. So I think having those mass vaccination sites were really important to be able to get it out to as many people as we can," Medina said.

These mass clinics are no longer sustainable, she added. The state’s strategy to encourage vaccinations will likely move to be more of a slow and steady, one-on-one approach, she said.

Part of this new approach will be allowing people to access the vaccines through their doctors’ offices. Cleveland Clinic will now offer vaccines at some of its primary care locations, so people can simply go to their doctor if they are interested, Medina said.

“We’re hoping with that kind of a strategy, much more distributed, we will be able to get to folks, especially if they’re taking the time to see their doctors now,” Medina said.

The two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require ultra-cold storage, so it was initially difficult to store the vaccines at doctors’ offices, she said. However, officials have since learned the shots can be stored in a frozen unit at these locations for a longer period of time than they initially thought, she added.

Summit County primary care providers are still working out these storage logistics, so the vaccines are not yet available there, said Health Commissioner Donna Skoda.

For now, health officials are continuing to host drive-thru and pop-up clinics throughout the community, Skoda said.

She agrees with Medina that vaccine distribution in Ohio is no longer a fast and furious approach.

“Honestly, I think it's going to be this slow ground game,” Skoda said. “We've had a lot of people say to us, ‘oh, I would have never gotten it if you hadn't been down here just hanging out’ … and so that's why we've tried the Saturday, Sunday, ‘we’ll come to your business, we'll go anywhere you want us to go, to try to get it so that we can give you your vaccine.’”

Vaccination rates will likely never get back to what they were in the peak of distribution in March and April, Skoda added. She thinks the only way the state would see a major uptick in vaccinations is if the COVID-19 rates start to climb again, she said.

Will Ohio Continue Using Incentives To Curb Vaccination Decline?

Vaccinations dipped in early May to about less than 10,000 new vaccines administered per day, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health (ODH). To encourage vaccinations, Gov. Mike DeWine started Vax-a-Million, a million-dollar lottery sweepstakes and college scholarship contest.

“Our first concern, candidly, was to stop the bleeding, and by that I mean stop it from going down. So, righting the ship in and of itself was an accomplishment,” DeWine said in a press conference.

The incentive seemed to result in temporary payoff – with a 30 percent increase in vaccinations reported after the program was announced. But the increase does not appear to be a long-term, sustainable surge, as vaccinations are ticking down to less than 10,000 per day once again, according to ODH data.

The state may announce new incentives soon, and some counties and cities have started smaller-scale programs. For example, the Summit County health department will soon give out gift cards to people who get the vaccine at their clinics, Skoda said.

And, the governor has even hinted at another statewide contest coming soon.

“We hope to be able to give you some information about that in the future. Something that they might offer, an Ohio product that might be offered. So, kind of excited about that,” DeWine said.

Medina at Cleveland Clinic says incentives do work – but, they are not as sustainable as one-on-one connections at doctor’s offices and convenient community clinics.

"There's only so many incentives that will get people to change their behavior,” she said. “That would be great if we could continue to figure out ways to … hold out a carrot for folks. But I think there's a certain point where, regardless of what you put out there, people will have to find their own internal motivation to do this.”

It is still unknown, Medina added, whether it will eventually take places like businesses and entertainment venues requiring vaccination to get more people vaccinated.

While some hospitals require employees to get the flu shot, places likely wouldn’t be able to require the COVID-19 vaccines right now because they are authorized for emergency use and have not yet received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Some Ohio lawmakers are trying to get ahead of the curve and introduced a bill in the Ohio House that would prevent businesses, schools and health care providers from mandating vaccines of any kind.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.