First health care workers in N.J. begin receiving COVID-19 vaccine

Maritza Beniquez receives the COVID-19 vaccine as Gov. Phil Murphy, Tammy Murphy, and Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli look on. Photo by Edwin J. Torres.

Tears, cheers, laughter, and applause were the responses as the first health care workers in the state began receiving Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday at the University Hospital vaccine clinic at the Rutgers University Medical School in Newark.

New Jersey has been one of the states that has been hit the hardest by the pandemic. More than 17,870 residents of the most densely populated state in the country have died as a result of complications from COVID-19. The state has received positive PCR test results for 409,414 residents.

Maritza Beniquez, a resident nurse at the University Hospital Emergency Department who celebrated her 56th birthday on Tuesday, was the first New Jersey resident to receive the vaccine outside of clinical trials.

Beniquez first answered a series of questions about allergies, whether she had a fever in the past 48 hours, whether she was pregnant, and if it was possible she had any recent exposure to COVID-19.

“Every day,” the nurse said regarding potential exposure.

After the vaccine was injected into her right arm at about 8:10 a.m., hospital staff members and guests, including Gov. Phil Murphy, First Lady Tammy Murphy, and Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, clapped and cheered. Beniquez called out “Thank God, thank God.”

Beniquez said the pandemic has been unlike any other event she has experienced in her lifetime. She said she often recalls the faces of patients who struggled to battle the virus and those who died. Asked by a reporter why she volunteered to be the first vaccine recipient, she said she did it because it had to be done.

“We have to fight back. This disease doesn’t have any boundaries. It doesn’t care who you are or where you are from,” she said. “Why did I do it? I did it to protect myself, to protect my family, to protect my community, to protect my neighbors, and to protect my patients.”

Beniquez said she felt great and was not worried about side effects. She examined her arm after the injection because she didn’t feel the shot. She remained in her chair for fifteen minutes after receiving the shot until a hospital staff member told her she was free to go. She will receive the second Pfizer vaccine shot in 21 days.

Other health care workers also said they volunteered to get the vaccine to protect themselves and their families. “I believe and trust in science,” said Doctor Charles Farmer, who works in the emergency room at University Hospital. Farmer said he felt it was especially important to volunteer the first day to show people of color that the vaccine is safe.

Officials toured the clinic, which has the capacity to vaccinate 600 people a day, and they observed the first five New Jersey healthcare workers being vaccinated. About 80 healthcare workers were slated to be inoculated at the clinic on Tuesday. The clinic will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. The hospital received just under 3,000 doses in its first shipment.

Dr. Charles Farmer receives the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Edwin J. Torres.