Maizie Argondizza showed up for work at a massive vaccination site Thursday in a uniform more associated with her former life — the one that went up in flames when the coronavirus left her and the band she worked for suddenly unemployed a year ago.
On her feet: knockoff Doc Martens so shiny you’d never know she picked them up at a Tennessee thrift store ahead of a music festival in a muddy field. On her head: teal streaks in black-dyed hair framed by a crisp line of bangs. Above a black surgical mask: Black eyeliner stretched just beyond her eyelids in a punk swoosh. On her waist: green fanny pack with a possum and the words, “LIVE FAST EAT TRASH.”
Despite a blue emergency-worker vest, clipboard, and handheld radio, this was not your typical public health worker helping to oversee a COVID-19 vaccination colossus in one of the largest counties in Pennsylvania.
This was a 33-year-old woman who’d made the ultimate career U-turn during the worst pandemic in a century.
From the ruins of the vaporized live music industry that had been her social and economic lifeblood, Argondizza stepped into an unlikely role as pandemic healer. A volunteer-turned-no-weekends-off manager who, when I caught up with her a few days ago, was supervising a Delaware County operation where hope is served up one Moderna shot at a time to more than 1,000 strangers each and every day.
“Every time I say ‘yes,’ I get experiences that nobody else has,” she said of her yearlong odyssey from tour manager to this. From logistics chief of long-night gigs in bars to quality control supervisor for each of seven vaccination outposts administered by her home county. “Here I am, operating a public vaccination site. I’d never before thought I’d work in public health.”
Argondizza was manager of Baltimore-based Sean K. Preston band for several years before the coronavirus pandemic idled the three-person act. She managed degrees of chaos and work ending at dawn. She thrives on that sort of creative improvisation. It is why Argondizza wears a charm around her neck with the word “chaos” on it.
When the coronavirus hit with full force last spring, four months of hard-won bookings for the band — and all the future income those represented — vanished as live music, bars and restaurants went idle due to the scourge of airborne contagion.
Early panic was channeled into furiously sewing masks from her Marcus Hook home with bass-playing boyfriend Cory McGrath. Then she saw a newspaper ad seeking volunteers to help the county of some 560,000 residents mount a COVID-19 response.
“My idea of public health was this,” she said in the murmur whose low energy is a hallmark of her unflappable management style: “Should this guy stop drinking?”
Argondizza trained with the county Medical Reserve Corps and volunteered last year at COVID-19 testing sites. She was one of thousands of volunteers across the region who are behind-the-scenes heroes of this pandemic. Many of them work for her now.
Back then, people in line were terrified and jittery. It was nothing like the tears of joy from residents receiving prophylactic vaccine jabs this year.
By November, she pivoted again. This time into a temp job helping the county at General Election time. She stood out as a natural leader and got a job offer to become a paid staffer on the county’s public health payroll.
Thus was born the quality control site supervisor now working around the clock.
When she is stationed at Aston Community Center, as many as 1,200 or more people can flow through in a single day. Her radio crackles with requests from across the gymnasium, lobby, and front sidewalk where volunteers and paid medical staff are handling the flow.
Someone on oxygen pulled up and wants the shot in the parking lot — can we do this?
The overhead projector showing a digital clock in the post-vaccination observation room is not working — can she fix it?
There’s a bottleneck of people at the front — do we need to stop things right now and make sure everyone is safely distanced?
At the end of the night, instead of small talk with staff, it is time to manage one final, high-wire sprint: She and clinical lead Stephanie Reese, the registered nurse in charge of all medical staff and medical volunteers at Aston, hustle to find people on waitlists or in the neighborhood to use the typically handful of unused doses that desperately cannot be left unclaimed.
“It really feels like you are landing a plane in here,” Argondizza said of that end-of-shift scramble.
“She doesn’t get flustered. She doesn’t lose her cool,” said Reese, 48, a public health career professional who likewise floats from site to site as Argondizza does.
Reese had no idea her site manager had once worked live shows. Argondizza had no idea her clinical lead was a public health careerist. They found out from me. That is how busy these sites — and all the workers who keep them running — have been.
These are just two of the countless super-citizens who have been central to our regional pandemic response. People who have toiled with little public fanfare to mount a historic U.S. public health rescue infrastructure for which there had been no modern precedent.
“I’m thinking about the stories I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren,” Reese said, “and how we made an impact on the world. On the United States. In Pennsylvania.”
While not all hail from the same backgrounds, all are working in unison toward a shared goal: stifling the virus that has stolen so much from so many of us.
“Every single person that’s here not only has the greater good of the community in mind, but we all have selfish motives, too,” Argondizza said. “I want to go to concerts again. I want that back.”