By Gloria Stravelli
METUCHEN – COVID-19 was taking a toll on the borough when a group of residents stepped in to help.
In early March, borough officials were concerned with the rate of infections and what was for some the difficult online process of securing an appointment for a vaccination.
Then an informal network of volunteers stepped up to help book vaccination appointments and they didn’t stop there, waking in the middle of the night to book appointments when slots were made available; transporting people to and from vaccination sites; even arranging for a pharmacist to come to a senior’s home to administer the vaccine.
Together, the group of volunteers secured more than 1,000 appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations for Metuchen residents.
“We’re trying to emphasize how significant this was for our community,” Mayor Jonathan Busch said at the June 14 council meeting, where members of Metuchen’s #Team Vaccine were recognized.
“This has been an extraordinary year in the borough … but when push came to shove and the vaccine became available this borough kicked into action and we had people from all over the town, many of whom had never met one another, who just wanted to try to help.
“And so we had this group that came together, which we call Team Vaccine, and Councilwoman Sheri-Rose Rubin and I worked with a couple of people in town who we’d heard were looking for a way to apply what they were doing throughout the community …. in a more thorough, official manner.
“I heard that Laura Hale was running this operation of sorts with a couple of friends and we decided to connect and see if there was a way that we could create borough-wide support for something like this because as we all know, getting the vaccine was extraordinarily difficult and finding the vaccine during that period of time at the beginning of March.
“We were seeing that there were these pop-up efforts around the country but nothing concerted for any one community at that point.
“So we said, what if we take these extraordinary people in town and figure out if there is a way to get the system to work for us, because the system was hard – especially if you were elderly or disabled or unable to figure out how this worked – and get our town vaccinated as quickly as possible. And the numbers said it all.
“At some point this group … was responsible for thousands of vaccines that were received in some cases, probably months before they would otherwise have been administered and that just is extraordinary,” the mayor continued.
“Think about potentially how many people we saved from being sick as a result of these people’s efforts. And so you think about this and think about how extraordinary this work was and you wonder how you possibly can thank these people.
“There were moments throughout this where people said, ‘I can’t believe this, I’ve been trying for three weeks to get an appointment and I got one in 15 minutes as soon as I put my name on this list.’
“Or, ‘I’m having a really hard time and I don’t drive so I need to get somewhere and I can’t get a vaccine. But in an hour or two, not only do I have my vaccine appointment, but I have somebody that’s going to drive me to my vaccine appointment and wait for me and drive me home.’
“This is the stuff that communities are made of, and not every community has it – but we do here in Metuchen,” Busch said. “So I know the council members join me in giving them every bit of appreciation for the work you’ve done.”
As each Team Vaccine member was called to the front of the chamber, the mayor noted specific contributions made, which in many cases went beyond booking appointments, including: driving people to and from vaccination sites; staffing outreach tables; social media postings; running a food drive; spending hours on the phone to coordinate appointments for residents; creating a technology system that facilitated collaboration among team members, and more.
He also underscored the camaraderie that developed among the volunteers.
“We’re trying to emphasize how important this was for the community, that we are where we are today because of you. So thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Busch said. “You are going to hear in the names just how diverse this group is in terms of age, neighborhoods, they came from everywhere in the community.”
Members of Team Vaccine honored with proclamations are: Laura Hale, Jess Kaimo, Amy Jeney, Whitney Guhin, Aisha Ikramuddin, Lindsay Nalepa, Maureen Cozine, Nick Vosinas, Divya Ajit, Andrea Garafalo, Elizabeth Lin, Ara Farley, Jenn Eppensteiner, Laura Kane, Chinar Desai, Margo Wheeler, Chris Donahue, Eloisa Kenny, Alina Rusina, Tara Hirschenfang, Fedelize Micalbo, Robyn Borrello and Max Schilowitz.
Rubin read the proclamation aloud, noting the first case of COVID-19 in the borough was reported March 6, 2020, and by June 1, 2021, there had been 1,176 cases reported in the borough and 13 residents had succumbed to the virus.
The presentation can be viewed on the borough’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MetuchenBorough/