Stepping Up For The COVID Vaccine


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Barbara Wertz (front), the school nurse at Forest Avenue, and Norma Palmer, the nurse at HBW, have volunteered to give COVID-19 vaccinations for Essex County.

When she woke up on Tuesday morning, Lori Herko wasn’t sure she would go ahead with getting vaccinated against COVID-19 that day. A registered dietician at a long-term and sub-acute care facility, Herko had a chance to get the Pfizer vaccine at her place of work. But as a self-described “cautious vaccinator,” Herko hesitated.

“It was a big decision for me,” she says. “But after a lot of soul-searching, I decided that I needed to be part of the solution.”

Herko hasn’t been alone. Since Dr. Meredith Blitz-Goldstein, a surgeon, and Steve Chait, a paramedic, got their shots in the first days of vaccination, more Veronans have stepped up to fight the spread of COVID-19.

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Barbara Wertz, the school nurse at Forest Avenue Elementary School, and Norma Palmer, the school nurse at H.B. Whitehorne Middle School, are helping others to get vaccinated. They have been giving the shots at two of the five sites that Essex County has set up to speed vaccinations in our hard-hit county. They are well-equipped to do so–Wertz is also a volunteer with the Verona Rescue Squad and Palmer works in the pediatric intensive care unit at Saint Barnabas–and volunteering is easy while Verona’s schools are on holiday break.

“When we get back in school, I can start at 2 p.m.,” says Wertz. As healthcare professionals, both she and Palmer also received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine, and neither have had any side effects, other than some minor soreness.

There are roles in the vaccination effort for those without healthcare training as well. Elissa Malespina, the librarian at Verona High School, and Diane Conboy, the speech-language specialist in Verona’s elementary schools, are also volunteering. Conboy has been a greeter in the former Kmart store in West Orange that the county is using to vaccinate the residents of Verona, as well as those of Cedar Grove, Essex Fells, Montclair, Nutley and West Orange. “My fellow door greeters and I also orchestrated a classic ‘clap out’ for those leaving,” Conboy says.

Malespina has been helping at the registration desk at the county’s Livingston Mall site, the former Sears store. “They really have a great system in place that is very organized and extremely well run,” she says.

Essex County said today that its sites have vaccinated 3,127 people in their first four days of operating. The sites are not yet operating at full capacity, but when they are, each one will be able to vaccinate 1,000 people a day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the week except Sunday. People are allowed in by appointment only, with priority now for healthcare workers in hospitals and long-term care facilities, as well as home care, urgent care and health clinic workers, and those in dental offices, funeral homes, pharmacies, public health, group homes, and first responders.

The general population will be vaccinated last, and that couldn’t come soon enough in Essex County. It has had 47,146 of the 472,264 COVID positives statewide since the pandemic started, and 2,142 of the state’s 16,931 deaths. Verona has had 470 positives as of December 31, up 56% since the start of the month, and 15 deaths in 2020.

Herko’s arm was still a bit sore on Wednesday, but she remained convinced that she had done the right thing. “I wanted to be a role model for my co-workers,” she said.

The county still needs volunteer help at its vaccination sites. You can register to help here. You do not need to be vaccinated to be a volunteer but some volunteers are being vaccinated at their assigned place.

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected]


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