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Camden County Comes Together to Beat Covid-19
Camden County’s plans to beat Covid
By Kate Morgan

Photo: Mary DeSpirito and her daughter Theresa

For her 102nd birthday last month, Mary DeSpirito got an extremely important gift. Alongside her 79-year-old daughter, the West Berlin resident received her second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at Camden County College.

“I hope it keeps her safe and healthy for a long while yet,” DeSpirito’s daughter Theresa, who took the shot alongside her mother, told reporters. The DeSpiritos are now among the more than 10,000 people who have been vaccinated at the college.

“Our main focus, now and over the whole year, is this pandemic,” says County Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli, Jr. “It’s pretty much all-consuming.”

In the year since the first stay-at-home orders were issued, as the pandemic has raged on, the leaders of Camden County haven’t let off the gas. They’ve worked day and night to keep the county’s citizens informed and safe. Now, with vaccinations beginning, they’re continuing to work toward the goal they’ve had from the start: to protect and restore the health of Camden County.

“We all want to see an end to this pandemic and the more people who are vaccinated, the quicker we will see a return to the lives we used to know. For the first time since last March there is light on the horizon,” says Cappelli. “This is an unprecedented effort that takes significant logistics and coordination to get the vaccine to everyone who wants it. Getting this vaccine out to the public is one of the most important duties we have to protect the health and welfare of our residents, and we are going to do everything possible to achieve that objective.”

“For the first time since last March, there is light on the horizon.”
– Camden County Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli, Jr

Camden County Commissioner Louis Cappelli, Jr. announces the county’s rental assistance program with Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, Pat Ciervo of Main Street Realty and Camden City Councilwoman Felisha Reyes-Morton

Ready for the rollout

Even before doses were made available, Cappelli says, Camden County was ready. A plan was made and infrastructure put in place to ensure that a vaccination program could hit the ground running.

“We hired an additional 50 people to make sure we had the manpower necessary to establish effective vaccination sites,” he says. “We have a really dedicated workforce that’s excited to provide this service. We’ve already made a ton of progress getting people vaccinated.”

Together, the Camden County Board of Commissioners, Cooper University Health Care and Jefferson Health – New Jersey opened the megasite at the Blackwood campus in January.

It was important, says County Commissioner Jonathan Young, that it was Camden County government and health agencies running the show. “We didn’t want to depend on a third party to make sure our people were safe,” he says. “We thought it was on our shoulders to make sure people get vaccinated. We found that Camden County College is at the center of the county, it’s easy to get to with roadways and public transportation. We hired nurses, we have medical students from Rutgers and Rowan on hand. And we have the hospitals in the county helping us, holding the doses we get and storing them safely.”

Volunteers have distributed food to those in need every Friday

It’s a well-oiled machine, Young says, with residents who are pre-registered spending less than half an hour from the time they pull into the parking lot to the moment they receive their vaccination. Camden County seniors, veterans, first responders and others who are eligible have received vaccines there and at other locations, including a site at First Nazarene Baptist Church in Camden, thanks to a partnership between the county, the city, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership and Project H.O.P.E.

“While vaccinations are available at sites throughout the county, it is imperative that we get these services directly into the heart of heavily impacted communities,” Young says. The work isn’t finished, and Camden County hasn’t escaped the pandemic just yet, but there is reason to be optimistic. By early last month, the county was beginning to administer the second round of the vaccine’s 2 doses and had plans to open a second major vaccination site at The Salvation Army Kroc Center in Camden.

“It’s a really organized effort that’s reflective of the team in Camden County and the partnerships with Cooper, Jefferson and others,” Cappelli says. “I don’t know where we’ll be in the coming months, or next year, but this year we’ll vaccinate as many people as we can. We now have the infrastructure to inject 2,000 people a day.”

The start of a second pandemic year is a much more hopeful time, Young says, because Camden County is taking care of its own. “The crazy thing about war and pandemics and natural disasters is that it makes us rally around our community,” he says. “We didn’t panic. We listened to our residents, and we reacted. I think that’s what good leadership does. This is something that’s happening, we’re going to face it and we’re going to save our community.”

Meeting the need

When the Covid-19 pandemic began to ravage New Jersey in the spring of 2020, Camden County leadership quickly sprang into action, creating aid programs, establishing testing sites, and distributing equipment and information.

“Since the start of the pandemic,” says Young, “our priority has been to listen to our constituents, focusing on them, and making sure they’re the primary part of our response. It’s been about making sure folks have food on the table, money in their pocket and a roof over their head.”

Within weeks of the state shutdown orders, the number of residents facing food insecurity spiked as a result of job losses, shuttered schools and grocery store shortages. In response, one of the county’s first big initiatives was to make groceries widely available, he adds.

“We set up – and are still running – food distributions every Friday, either at the college or in Camden City,” Young says.

Other aid programs focused on the local economy, investing $30 million in small business relief, he notes. Among initiatives, the Camden County CARES Small Business Grant Program provided funding to more than 3,000 businesses that lost revenue because of the pandemic.

In an effort to head off evictions, the county passed legislation providing assistance to renters at risk of falling behind. “Landlords are going to want their money,” Young says. “To prevent our residents from being behind the 8-ball, we were able to provide funds toward their rent. Sometimes people just need that extra hand to make it through.”

The county Office of Emergency Management took charge of making sure protective equipment like masks and gloves made it to people living and working in Camden County. “They distributed more than half a million pieces of PPE to county facilities, hospitals and long-term care facilities,” he says.

Most importantly, the county set up half a dozen testing sites that are still up and running.

 

“This is something that’s happening, we’re going to face it and we’re going to save our community.”– Camden County Commissioner Jonathan Young

Knowledge is power

As cases spiked last year, South Jersey was hit especially hard. Cases were highest in the city of Camden, and the county devoted resources to keeping the residents and essential workers there informed and protected.

One day in January was set aside to vaccinate veterans

“At the height of the pandemic, the city was really taking a pounding,” says Young. “We put in some concentrated efforts to make sure as many people as possible were being tested and educated. We made sure there was an overabundance of masks going out on a consistent basis.”

The response in Camden was designed to fit the unique needs of the city, which Young says made the efforts extremely successful in flattening the curve there. “There are a lot of families in Camden that have 3 generations living in one household,” he says. “Many people don’t have a car, or rely on public transportation. We knew it was important to understand the population in order to keep them safe.”

Mobile testing centers were deployed, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood in the city. “Metro police went door-to-door,” Young says, “handing out information, making sure these folks really understood what they needed to do and what their options were.”

Cappelli says information was made available through webpages, leaflets and constant video updates. “We handed out information in 3 languages – English, Spanish and Vietnamese,” he says. “We understood it was vitally important for as much information as possible to reach every resident of the county. We did that with information about quarantining and testing, and now we’re doing it with vaccination.”

Where, how and when to get vaccinated in Camden County

Since January, New Jersey has been rolling out Covid vaccines in phases. The goal is to vaccinate 70 percent of the adult population – some 4.7 million people – by June.

Who can get the vaccine now?
At the time this issue went to print, the vaccine was available to adults 65 and older, anyone ages 16 to 64 with certain chronic medical conditions, residents and staff of long-term residential facilities and first responders who make up Phase 1 B of the state’s vaccination distribution plan. The state is following recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More details about eligibility are available at covid19nj.gov.

Who will be eligible next?
Gov. Murphy has said the next wave of eligibility will likely include additional essential workers. This group, according to the CDC, includes food and agricultural workers, postal workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers and those who work in education. When talking about this next phase of eligibility in a CNN interview, the Gov. said teachers are “in the on-deck circle.”

Where do I go?
The Camden County Board of Commissioners, in cooperation with Cooper University Health Care and Jefferson Health – New Jersey, operates a megasite at Camden County College’s Blackwood campus. The vaccine is also available at more than 20 healthcare facilities and pharmacies. For a full list, visit covid19.nj.gov. strong

How do I sign up?
• Pre-register and make an appointment through the NJ Vaccine Scheduling System.
• Make an appointment directly for the Camden County vaccination site at camdencounty.com.
• There are 2 options, depending on whether you’re registering with a computer or mobile device.
• If you work or volunteer at a select healthcare facility, make an appointment through your place of work.
• Veterans who receive care from VA health facilities or live in VA long-term care facilities may be eligible for vaccines through the VA.
• More information about signing up can be found at covid19.nj.gov. strong

Which vaccine will I get?
The Camden County Vaccination Center is administering the Moderna Vaccine, which requires 2 doses approximately 28 days apart.

Camden County’s Covid-19 Timeline

From the earliest infections and the darkest days of the pandemic’s surge to the hope of a well-executed vaccine rollout, Camden County has come a long way over the last year.

March 31, 2020 – First testing site opens
Since the start of the pandemic, the county has opened – and continues to operate – more than half a dozen testing sites, including mobile and pop-up centers.

November 5, 2020 – Covid cases hit single-day high
More new cases of the virus are reported in Camden County than on any single day since the start of the pandemic. Camden County Commissioner Louis Cappelli says, “We are at the beginning of a very difficult period in this pandemic.”

January 13, 2021 – Vaccination mega-site opens
The first vaccines are administered to people in the “1A” eligibility group, including healthcare workers and people who live and work in long-term care centers.

February 11, 2021 – Second vaccination round begins
The vaccines require people to receive 2 doses, several weeks apart. By the end of the month, more than 1,000 people in Camden County were expected to be fully vaccinated.

February 20, 2021 – Vaccination site opens in Camden City
A second major vaccination site opens at The Salvation Army Kroc Center in Camden. Commissioner Jonathan Young calls it an effort to “put resources where they’re needed most.”

March 2021
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