It was a simple question — with a simple answer: Did she have recent exposure to COVID-19?
Maritza Beniquez, a registered nurse in the emergency department of University Hospital in Newark, answered quickly: “Every day in the emergency room,” she said.
That fact was just one of the reasons Beniquez was the first person in New Jersey (outside of clinical trials) to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. It was injected into her right arm at 8:10 Tuesday morning at University Hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark.
Beniquez was one of five health care workers this morning to get the first of what will need to be two doses of the vaccine. It is the beginning of a long process that will be needed to meet the aggressive goal set by Gov. Phil Murphy and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
They hope to have two-thirds of the state vaccinated in six months.
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Murphy, who was on hand along with other health care leaders, including Persichilli, University Hospital CEO Shereef Elnahal and Rutgers New Jersey Medical School Dean Robert Johnson, on Tuesday visited University Hospital’s Vaccine Clinic at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School — and said it was a historic day in the state’s fight against the pandemic.
“This is a day that we have been waiting nearly a year for, and, while we know this isn’t the end, we are witnessing, at the least, a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Murphy, however, was quick to note that Tuesday is just the beginning of a long road.
“Without question, we are still in for several hard months, and we are going to face stiff headwinds from this second wave, but, now, our heroic frontline health care workers can begin to take care of their fellow New Jerseyans with a higher degree of confidence in their own protection,” he said.
Perscihilli, who served as CEO of University Hospital before taking the job with the state, said she was amazed by the quickness in which the vaccine became available.
“Availability of a COVID-19 vaccine within the same year as the epidemic began is a huge scientific achievement, which can help us contain this virus and save lives,” she said. “We are thankful for our hospitals — who serve communities around the state — for volunteering to provide equitable and efficient access to vaccines to our valued health care workforce.”
The federal government has allocated 76,050 first doses to New Jersey for the first tranche of the Pfizer-BioNTech (ultra-cold chain) vaccine, which began arriving at acute care hospitals Monday morning. New Jersey will roll out COVID-19 vaccines step-by-step to serve all adults who live, work or are being educated in the state.
Phasing will ensure that limited vaccines are distributed in a fair and equitable manner. Phase 1A of the plan, which captures approximately 650,000 people, includes health care workers who are paid and unpaid persons serving in health care settings who have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients or infectious materials. Acute care hospital workers at highest risk of exposure to COVID-19 will be the first to receive the vaccine.
The Department of Health issued guidance to the all acute care hospitals last week to help prepare for vaccine deployment. Six acute care hospitals across the state — AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Cooper University Hospital, Hackensack University Medical Center, Morristown Medical Center, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and University Hospital — are receiving doses this week of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
By the end of the week, vaccines should be available at an additional 47 acute care hospitals that can manage the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which requires ultra-cold chain storage. While acute care hospitals will be the only points of dispensing during the first week of vaccine availability, the network will expand to additional sites like Federally Qualified Health Centers, local health departments, county sites, urgent care clinics and pharmacies in December, pending vaccine availability.
Elnahal, who previously served as the commissioner of health (he and Persichilli essentially switched positions in 2019) said he is proud of the role University Hospital has played.
“University Hospital has had a central role in battling the COVID-19 virus, both in Newark and throughout the Garden State,” he said. “With an effective vaccine now available, the hospital will continue its leadership in this pandemic, by first vaccinating our frontline health care heroes through Operation Warp Speed.
“We know that our health care workers’ adoption of this vaccine will be key to convince community members to vaccinate later. Our health care heroes have been, and continue to be, trusted voices for health care in our community, and we hope that they will carry the message that these vaccines are safe and effective. Widespread vaccination is the most effective step to helping life return to a new normal, and we applaud those members of our workforce for being the first to roll up their sleeves.”
Beniquez was thrilled to be the first person to receive the vaccine.
“My experience during the COVID-19 pandemic has been that of so many of my health care peers,” she said. “During the first wave, we faced an unprecedented volume of critically ill patients from all walks of life and adult populations.
“As a woman of color, I stand in solidarity with my community and know that we are three times more likely to suffer the catastrophic effects of this disease. Although I am living proof that (personal protective equipment) functions and has kept me safe while at work, I’m honored to be the first person in New Jersey to receive this vaccine, which will limit the possibility of me contracting this disease and unknowingly transmitting it to others.”
Beniquez smiled as she was injected — and later examined her arm, because she said she didn’t feel the shot. Beniquez then remained in her blue leather chair for 15 minutes, until hospital staff told her she was free to go.
It was time to celebrate the day for another reason: It was her 56th birthday.
“This is the best birthday present ever,” she said, as people clapped and cheered. “I can see that light at the end of the tunnel. This is it. It’s a great way to celebrate my birthday.”