Perhaps the best birthday present Maritza Beniquez, a resident nurse at Newark’s University Hospital emergency department, received today was becoming the first person in the state to receive the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
The words the 56-year-old healthcare provider spoke at this morning’s press conference, which was held on hospital grounds, brought the vaccine’s value home to anyone who doesn’t understand the concerns these front-line heroes have been facing since early March: “I am happy that in another month and a half [after her two doses of the vaccine], I won’t be afraid to enter a room to treat a [COVID] patient and have the risk of taking the virus home to my family, friends and community. … I am elated. … Thank you, God, for this moment!”
With this event, six acute care hospitals in the state will be vaccinating a number of their employees today. They include University Hospital; AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center; Cooper University Hospital; Hackensack University Medical Center; Morristown Medical Center; and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
By the end of the week, an additional 47 acute care hospitals will receive the Pfizer vaccine and, according to State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, 18 more hospitals will receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine once the US Food & Drug Administration grants the drug Emergency Use Authorization (EMA).
Persichilli added that while acute care hospitals will be the initial points for dispensing the vaccines: “In a very short time, we will be announcing a network of community-based providers that will be available to all healthcare workers.”
The state is getting a total of 76,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week. Of that number, 20,000 will be released to long-term-care facilities through a federal program in partnership with CVS and Walgreens.
A total of 80 healthcare workers were expected to be inoculated at University Hospital today. At Hackensack University Medical Center, which held its own press conference this morning, that number was expected to be 170, according to Robert Garrett, CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health (HMH).
The general state population is expected to have access to the vaccine by April or May of next year, with Gov. Phil Murphy saying, “Our healthcare workers and long-term-care facility residents and staff remain our top priority for initial vaccination. … We hope that soon enough, our attention moves to other front-line workers, vulnerable communities, and ultimately the general public.”
Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital and former state commissioner of health, commented that among those vulnerable communities are persons of color. He recalled that when walking through hospital corridors during the pandemic’s first wave, he could not help but notice that “almost every patient in those rooms was a person of color. It has never been more clear that the health and well being of this community that we serve here in Newark has a direct impact on everyone’s health in this entire state and nation,” he said.
Beniquez commented, “As a woman of color and a Latina, I know that we are three times more likely to suffer the catastrophic effects of the disease.”
Persichilli added that African Americans are two and a half times more likely to die than white people who have contracted COVID-19.
At Hackensack University Medical Center, former New York Giant and NFL Hall of Famer Harry Carson was on hand to say that when it is time for him to be vaccinated, he will do so and set an example for many in the African American community.
Garrett said some 26,000 HMH employees will be vaccinated throughout the hospital system over the coming weeks. He said HMH will have 30 vaccination sites throughout its network, including its hospitals and urgent care centers. “In addition, we are in the process of developing a mega-site location in conjunction with the State Health Department,” he said.
Discussing the safety of the vaccine, Persichilli said, “The clinical trial data shows that this vaccine is safe and effective in preventing symptoms of COVID-19. Our own New Jersey Professional Advisory Committee has diligently reviewed all of the data related to the virus trials.”
According to Garrett, “We have delivered a safe and effective vaccine in record time. This is truly the beginning of the end of a nightmare. This is the good news the entire world has been waiting for.”
Persichilli stressed that New Jersey residents must continue to follow the health rules and remain vigilant: “Today is the first step in a long journey. We cannot let our guard down. We must continue to mask and socially distance, wash our hands frequently, stay home, and get tested.”
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