NEW JERSEY (WABC) -- The first COVID-19 vaccinations are being given in New Jersey Tuesday, with the first recipient a nurse who got the shot at University Hospital in Newark.
Maritza Beniquez has had a front-row seat to the devastation the coronavirus pandemic has wrought on communities of color in New Jersey, so the 56-year-old ER nurse jumped at the chance to take the vaccine that is being hailed as a potential turning point in a long and grueling battle against the deadly virus.
"I'm happy that in another month and a half, I won't have to be afraid to go into a room anymore," she said. "I won't have to be afraid to perform chest compressions or be present when they're intubating a patient. I don't want to be afraid anymore, and I don't want to have that risk of taking it home to my own family and my own friends."
Governor Phil Murphy and other officials were on hand to witness the event, billed by the governor as a "momentous day."
Frontline healthcare workers are first in line to get this first shipment of 76,000 shots, which have to be stored in special ultra-cold freezers.
Right now, University Hospital has the capacity for 120,000 single shots of the vaccine with another freezer on the way.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told residents not to "line up on Broad Street" for the vaccine, but he urged all residents to eventually get the shot, noting the city is not going to "come to your house and force you to take the vaccine."
Essex County, which includes Newark, has had more than 2,000 deaths from COVID-19, the most of New Jersey's 21 counties. Last month, the test positivity rate soared to around 40% in some areas including the Ironbound, the heart of the city's Spanish and Portuguese community, prompting Baraka to impose a curfew and additional restrictions on businesses.
University Hospital lost 11 of its workers to the coronavirus and is expecting to administer 600 vaccinations on its first day.
"That light we see is the light at the end of the tunnel," Murphy said. "But we have to travel more before we are through this darkness. Even though we can now point to a vaccine, we cannot give up on the practices that will help us through, social distancing, wearing our masks, washing our hands."
Five people were vaccinated as part of the event, starting with Beniquez, a single mother of three children and a first-generation Puerto Rican. She was followed by three doctors and an office assistant.
"I'm very excited," she said to Murphy and others who had gathered to watch before receiving the vaccine. "This moment means everything."
It also happened to be Beniquez's 56th birthday.
"This is the best birthday present ever," she said.
Meanwhile, at Hackensack University Medical Center, Nurse Robert Robinson told Eyewitness News he contracted COVID back in the spring, and his own coworkers nursed him back to health.
Now as they deal with a new wave of infections, finally, there's a vaccine.
"Right now, we're so overwhelmed," he said. "We're working any way we can, managers, supervisors, nurses, it's just we're all on autopilot at this point."
Five other acute care hospitals in New Jersey were to begin administering the Pfizer vaccine Tuesday, and 47 additional hospitals were expected to be added by the end of the week, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said.
If the Moderna vaccine is approved, the state will receive about 150,000 next week, she said. The vaccines will be available later this month at local health departments, county sites, urgent care clinics, and pharmacies.
Meanwhile, New Jersey reported Monday 4,805 new positive coronavirus cases, with an additional 25 deaths.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
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