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February 08, 2021

Inside Camden County’s mega-vaccination clinic

The location has vaccinated more than 10,000 residents against COVID-19, however more vaccinations are needed in order to achieve the goal of herd immunity

Prevention COVID-19
camden county COVID-19 vaccine Michael Candelori/for PhillyVoice

People getting COVID-19 vaccination shots at Camden County Community College in Blackwood each get an information sheet about the vaccine and a timer, which lets them know when they can leave after getting the inoculation.

One day after the Camden County Vaccination Center administered its 10,000th dose last week, the Simons family received their vaccinations. Lawrence and his parents, Carl and Ruth, were all smiles as they were leaving Camden County College's gym on Friday.

The three of them, from South Jersey, qualified to be vaccinated together as a family after the clinic opened last month. So far, as many as 6,000 people are being vaccinated here per week and that number is quickly rising.

camden county COVID-19 vaccineMichael Candelori/for PhillyVoice

From Left, Ruth, Lawrence and Carl Simons are photographed together after receiving their first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 on Friday, Feb. 5. They received their shots at the Camden County Community College in Blackwood, New Jersey.

"We are traveling together to Florida," Lawrence said. He wanted to make sure they all got their second doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before leaving the state. He said signing up each family member, getting approval and being vaccinated was "seamless" and "easy."

According to Dan Keashen, spokesperson for Camden County, from the time someone walks in the door to the time they check out, it takes less than 20 minutes. While the vaccination takes seconds, the waiting period after receiving the vaccination, as well as check-in and check-out take up most of the time.

More than 65 employees work in the clinic on any given day (It's open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) thanks to partnerships between the Camden County Board of CommissionersCooper University Hospital and Jefferson University Hospital New Jersey.

camden county COVID-19 vaccineMichael Candelori/for PhillyVoice

This sign is displayed inside Camden County's COVID-19 vaccination site at Camden County Community College in Blackwood, New Jersey.

"We are are at about 55% of our total vaccinations of senior citizens 65 and over," Keashen explained. "Realistically, we could do upwards of 2,000 to 2,400 per day. It's just a question of getting more of the vaccine at this point."

At this rate, it could take another six months to a year until the majority of residents in Camden County are vaccinated against the deadly virus.

Seniors and health care workers first

The majority of people receiving the vaccine, like Paul Polizzi, are senior citizens. After receiving his vaccination Friday afternoon, the Camden resident said he's "relieved" because he's been trying to get a vaccine for quite some time. He was eager to sign up when he learned that this location opened a few weeks ago. "I tried all the areas and they were booked," said Polizzi, who's now scheduled for his second dose in about three weeks.

camden county COVID-19 vaccineMichael Candelori/for PhillyVoice

Paul Polizzi prepares to receive his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Camden County's mega-vaccination site in Blackwood, New Jersey, on Friday, Feb. 5.

Approximately 4.5 million Jersey residents meet the criteria and are currently eligible for the vaccination statewide, including seniors and health care workers, who head the list. At this clinic, County Health Department nurses are administering vaccines, along with nursing students.

Amber Clark, a nursing student from nearby Rutgers University, administered her first vaccine to patients last week. "It's good to be here to be able to help out," she said. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, a lot of students have been unable to work closely with patients, and as such, the clinic has provided valuable clinical rotations. As many as 10 medical and/or nursing students are working at the clinic each day from both Rutgers School of Nursingand Cooper Medical School at Rowan University.

EMTs are also on-site during clinical operation, though Keashen said there have been no major health emergencies to date. But as a precaution, anyone who gets the vaccine is asked to stay for about 15 minutes in socially distanced seating to ensure they experience no allergic reactions

Another hard and fast rule is that patients must receive their second dose at the same location in which they received the first, explained Rachel Honrychs of the Camden County Health Department.

"We would love as many doses as possible to get more people vaccinated," she said. She's working with Dominic Vesper, Deputy County Administrator, to ensure the operation runs as smoothly as possible, and that the clinic can accommodate more patients as vaccines become available.

"I'm just disappointed that there are so many empty chairs," Vesper said. "If you give us more vaccines we will fill these chairs."

The county is currently working with the commissioners and governor's office to increase the bandwidth this clinic, like many others, serves in the coming weeks. It's essential, said Louis Cappelli, Jr., County Commissioner Director.

"In order to end this pandemic," he explained, "we need to get as many people as possible vaccinated."

Cappelli estimates that if the county can get at least 70-80% of the population vaccinated this year, herd immunity will be achieved, which would greatly reduce infection rates and allow a reopening of society. "We're hoping by the end of February into March that the number of vaccines we receive will increase a bit," he said. "We have the infrastructure to easily vaccinate 12,000 people each week."

With the newest Johnson & Johnson vaccine seeking emergency use, clinics could have more flexibility in both scheduling and storing doses. "If it's available in the spring," Cappelli said, "it would be easy to store and requires just one dose," whereas both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require an initial dose and booster.

Light at the end of the tunnel

In the meantime, it's people like Marisol Rivera, who are not only disinfecting surfaces throughout the clinic, but also bringing some much-needed respite for workers and patients alike. Since she started working at the clinic last month, she's been dressing up in costumes every single day.

On Friday, she dressed as a princess-bumble bee combination, complete with a yellow tutu. "I just wanted to bring some happiness to people," Rivera, a Camden resident, said. After a year of quarantine and much anxiety, it's no wonder people laugh and clap when they see her. By the time patients leave the clinic, they all seem to know Rivera.

camden county COVID-19 vaccineMichael Candelori/for PhillyVoice

Marisol Rivera disinfects a chair in the waiting area of Camden County COVID-19 vaccination site at Camden County Community College. She wears a costume, she says, to brighten the spirits of people who have come to get their shots.

Patients who receive vaccines are also encouraged to leave messages on a bulletin board. Many are intensely personal, like a note from someone who had an organ transplant a decade ago, or another who wanted to be able to see their grandchildren again. The stories are as varied as you might imagine from anonymous friends and neighbors, some of whom survived the virus and others who are desperately trying to avoid ever getting it.

camden county COVID-19 vaccineMichael Candelori/for PhillyVoice

After getting the COVID-19 vaccine shot, people can leave a message that gets hung on the wall at the mega-vaccination site in Camden County, New Jersey.

"We have thousands of these posts at this point," Keashen said. "They're all really motivating in regards to putting an end to this virus and getting peoples' lives back."

Disclosure: PhillyVoice Founder and Chairwoman Lexie Norcross sits on the Cooper Foundation board of trustees. Her father is George E. Norcross III, chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Cooper Health System.

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