ELIZABETH, NJ - Candle flames and lights symbolized the hundreds of thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19 in a nationwide vigil held Tuesday night. New Jerseyans with disabilities joined thousands in cities around the country who participated virtually.

President Joe Biden held the memorial ceremony hours before his inauguration, speaking from the top of the Lincoln Memorial’s pool of reflection. Washington church bells tolled and 400 luminaries were lit in remembrance.

Members at Community Access Unlimited joined in paying tribute to the more than 400,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19. CAU is a Union County-based, statewide nonprofit that works to integrate people with disabilities and youth at risk into the general community through comprehensive supports.

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People with disabilities have faced additional challenges throughout the pandemic beyond the virus itself. Some crucial programs have moved to virtual services or closed temporarily due to state mandates. For individuals in residential programs, COVID-19 safety measures have been rigorous, and limited visits with family and friends.

CAU members said they remembered those who have died by lighting flashlights on Tuesday, and that they felt hope for a better 2021.

“It really is sad,” said member Jennifer Brown. “It’s been a rough year because of the pandemic, but hopefully this next year will not be too bad.”

Brown has worked throughout the pandemic at ShopRite and said she continues to take safety seriously at work and at home, whether that means giving a fresh mask to a customer or reminding her housemates to wash their hands regularly. She misses going to church and being able to kiss and hug her loved ones, and she stressed that the sacrifice is necessary. 

“It’s scary that people are dying every day or getting sick, and that others are not distanced or not wearing masks,” Brown said. “We all have to try to be careful with COVID-19 by wearing a mask and social distancing, but it’s hard. Wear your mask, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Some individuals with disabilities in New Jersey have begun to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Member Linda Fishwick said she received her first dose and is anticipating a better year.

“It’s terrible, I can’t wait for this virus to be over,” said Fishwick. “It feels better that I got my vaccine, and that things will hopefully get better with this virus.”