Almost as soon as New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that the state would open COVID-19 vaccinations up to anyone 65 or older, or to younger people with a preexisting medical condition, Mary Habina of Cherry Hill began finding out how to sign up.
Habina follows Murphy on Facebook and within minutes found a link in a thread for how Camden County residents can register online. By Thursday morning, she had already received the vaccine at a site erected inside Camden County College.
“I’m so excited to get my life back,” said Habina, 49, who has a health condition that qualifies her. “I just want to be a part of the solution and be a part of getting our country back.”
The county transformed a large, open space at the college’s Blackwood campus into a clinic complete with computerized intake stations, injection tables, and curtained walls, staffed by nurses from the county health department. The vaccination center is a joint project with Cooper University Health Care and Jefferson Health.
A similar site will open at the Atlantic City Convention Center in two weeks, Mayor Marty Small Sr. said Thursday.
Previously, vaccinations to New Jersey residents were available only to health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.
On Thursday, many people with appointments were in and out within 20 minutes, though those with allergies or other conditions had to wait longer in the recovery area to be monitored in case of a reaction to the vaccine. More than half a dozen people spoke highly of the process, from sign-up through vaccination. Some were surprised to see they had already been given appointments required for the second dose of the Moderna vaccine.
Habina, who worked previously in safety assessment for a pharmaceutical company, said she had no hesitation about the vaccine.
“I could not believe my luck,” Habina said in getting an appointment so quickly. But, she said friends who waited have already been told their appointments are weeks out.
County spokesperson Dan Keashan said the site was expected to handle 150 to 200 appointments Thursday from an initial shipment of 1,100 doses this week. But, he said the county expects a shipment of an additional 6,000 doses this weekend. The center will be able to handle more vaccinations in the coming weeks as supplies become steadier.
Ronald Kolc, 82, of West Berlin, was among the first at the site, along with his wife, Sara. The couple are traveling to North Carolina and wanted the vaccine before they left.
“It was pretty smooth,” Kolc said. “The whole process was pretty painless.”
Margarita Comacho, a nurse with the county, said she’s already received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine separately through a hospital. Comacho said she experienced chills and body aches over a 24-hour period after the second dose, but she was back at work the next day without any issues. She considered the side effects minor compared with the alternative of getting sick or spreading the disease.
“The only way to build immunity within the community is for everyone that wants a vaccine, gets a vaccine — or as close to everyone as we can,” Comacho said. She is encouraging coworkers, neighbors, and friends to get the vaccine.
Lt. Terrell Watkins of the Camden County Police Department was more hesitant. Nevertheless, he got the vaccine out of a sense of duty. Plus, he is immunocompromised from a preexisting condition. Watkins said some of the people he supervises said they wanted to wait a few months before getting a shot to make sure the vaccine was safe.
“With me being a commander of a large body of officers, I wanted to kind of lead from the front,” Watkins said.
Nearby, another lieutenant from the department, Vivian Coley, had no hesitation. She wanted the vaccine so she could visit her 93-year-old grandmother.
“There were naysayers and folks telling me that I shouldn’t get vaccinated,” Coley said.
To her, it was more dangerous to not get the vaccine.
Staff writer Amy Rosenberg contributed to this report.