Camden’s Mount Ephraim Avenue was busy with lunch-hour traffic when police cars turned down the street and blocked off a lane to usher in a makeshift parade. Escorted by a fire engine and an ice cream truck, cheerleaders from Camden High marched along, shaking hot-pink pom-poms and chanting “Let’s get vaccinated!” as store owners and drivers waved and honked.
Sweating in the 90-degree heat, Aaron Lofland had no plans to get a vaccine on Tuesday, but then Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen stopped and asked if he wanted one. Lofland, 36, said he had COVID-19 last year and didn’t want it to happen again. So he headed to a mobile nursing unit following along in the procession and got the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot, sitting in the backseat of the car.
“My man,” Carstarphen told him, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’re stepping up, brother!”
As Lofland got his vaccine, a woman approached a member of the Rutgers University-Camden School of Nursing as he stood on the sidelines. “Excuse me, excuse me,” she said. “I want to get my shot, too.”
Almost 18 months into the pandemic and more than six months after vaccines were rolled out, Tuesday’s parade was a scene some Camden leaders and health-care workers would not have predicted: yet another attempt at getting the city’s residents vaccinated, this time using the element of surprise and the offer of soft-serve ice cream.
The parade through Camden’s Centerville neighborhood took about an hour and a half and covered only about a mile. The marching band that had planned to join the procession never showed up. But in the end, 10 people got shots in arms — a higher number than city and county officials had hoped for.
“If we’d had just one person today, that’s one more who’s going to talk about the experience to his friends and family,” Carstarphen said.
As case numbers climb in South Jersey and the region due to the spread of the delta variant, Camden officials have mounted a more aggressive push to boost vaccinations. South Jersey is now seeing a high level of transmission of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many Camden residents work in the food service industry, have other jobs that cannot be done from home, or live in multigenerational households. The city of about 73,000 has been home to several surges in coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic.
An estimated 59% of Camden residents over 18 have gotten at least one vaccine, according to state data. That’s up about 5% more than a month ago. Fifty-one percent of adults are fully vaccinated.
On Tuesday, a few people along the parade route said they’d recently gotten around to getting their shots. Carstarphen fist-bumped one man who swept in front of a bodega, wearing a mask. The man, who introduced himself as Gus but declined to give his last name, rolled up his sleeve to show where he’d gotten the vaccine just a few days before.
“I work around people,” he said. “Want to be safe.”
Yasmen Oliver and her fiancé, Charles Braxton, waved to a firefighter as the parade passed the front porch of their Centerville home. They got their shots months ago, and said most people they know are vaccinated, too.
“Most people I know got it,” Oliver said, “because we kept talking and talking about it!”