PATERSON, NJ - 75-year-old Phil Baker and his friend Bobbie stood mere feet from entering the glass doors into the hallway that leads to the gymnasium of Paterson’s International High School. The septuagenarian displayed the ticket he had been given after arriving early in the morning to be administered a coronavirus inoculation. The number on the ticket that marked his place in line: 500.
Facing a windchill that plummeted feel-like temperatures into the teens, hundreds of anxious participants waited Wednesday for a COVID-19 vaccination in a seemingly endless line that snaked from the high school’s third floor, down an extensive length of concrete steps, and around several sides of the building. By 11 a.m., many were informed that they missed the daily cut off number and had already left.
Dressed in several layers of clothing while sporting a stocking cap and heavy winter gloves, Baker said he had waited in line for nearly four hours, arriving well before the scheduled start time of vaccine distribution.
“I’m not complaining,” the Wayne resident, who said he had no underlying conditions, graciously stated. “I applied on-line in my town and was told I would have to wait until March to get vaccinated, so I decided to come here.”
In an outdoor news conference held on the grass landing near the school’s second floor and with the line of applicants behind him, Mayor Andre Sayegh addressed a horde of television cameras and media personnel. The mayor directly implored the newly inaugurated Commander-in-Chief for assistance.
“Today we are making a plea to the new president. Give us the vaccine to finish the job,” Sayegh exclaimed. “Today we will be providing vaccinations for 700 people, and we have had to turn others away. We asked for 7,000 doses but got only 3,000. We need more. I am pleading with President Joe Biden for help.”
Sayegh said that the federal government provides each state, including New Jersey, with vaccine doses for their particular municipalities. He has had no problem with distribution by Garden State authorities, Sayegh said.
The city received 2,000 doses from the state on Tuesday, after running out last week, and next week the quantity has been reduced to 700. The latter low number was due to a report that the city had 900 leftover doses last week, on Thursday, which were all distributed the following day, according to Sayegh.
Sayegh referenced a $95,000 grant the city’s Division of Health and Human Services received in 2019 to develop a team that would combat a potential outbreak of communicable disease. He said that the funds helped Paterson get ahead of the curve in such areas as testing and contact tracing when the plague of COVID-19 broke.
“We originally thought that this money would possibly be used if there was some type of food contamination,” Sayegh recounted. “Little did we know that a pandemic would come.”
Health Officer Paul Persaud said that unlike many other municipalities, city officials decided to offer vaccinations on a first come, first served basis rather than require that appointments be made.
“We wanted to be inclusive, rather than exclusive,” Persaud stated. “We believe in health equity. We believe that the vaccinations are better served in peoples’ arms than sitting in a refrigerator.”
The open-minded strategy has led to the location becoming a magnet for applicants not only from Paterson but from surrounding Passaic County and beyond.
Bobby Malik said that he traveled over an hour from his home in Mercer County to get his shot.
“I came to Paterson today because I didn’t want to risk waiting to get a vaccination,” the 51-year-old said.
A group of friends that persevered through the winter conditions were sisters Sylvia and Rosemary Cosentino, and Marinda Cunningham. The trio said they crossed the Passaic River from their homes in Elmwood Park to receive the important medical attention.
“We got here at 7:30 this morning,” Sylvia commented as her companions concurred. “We were not surprised by the line because of the serious need for vaccinations. We are absolutely glad to be here.”
Department of Health and Human Services Director Oshin Castillo stressed the importance of receiving vaccinations to better enable schools and businesses to safely open.
As a result of the high demand for vaccine doses, preventative shots will be provided for any New Jersey resident on Thursday, January 21, but on Friday, January 22, testing will be reserved for Paterson residents only. Doors open at 9:30 a.m. and close at 3:00 p.m. on both days.
Meanwhile, back to the long line.
Moments before finally walking through the elusive glass doors, with his test of endurance nearly completed, Baker shared humor to put a positive spin on his difficult ordeal.
“I’m not worried about getting the vaccine,” Baker said with a smile. “I just want to get warm.”
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