SOMERSET, NJ – It’s been a long year for Marilyn Kuna and her family. Like many New Jerseyans, the 84-year-old couple and Marilyn’s son have largely been homebound as COVID-19 upended life across the country. 

But when New Jersey announced its rollout of coronavirus vaccines in December, hope quickly turned to frustration as she struggled to get her family registered for the vaccine. 

“We couldn’t get any and I’d registered us on the state registry and I would periodically get an email saying ‘Thank you for your patience," she said. 

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Early on, county commissioner director Shanel Robinson said Somerset County was getting 700 doses a week while the county hotline for the vaccine fielded 150 calls an hour from residents – indicating demand was far outpacing supply. But with the state lacking a consistent method for vaccine registration across counties, let alone municipalities, Kuna and many like her were left scrambling to find a dose.

“I think that the system and the way it was rolled out leaves people wondering, guessing and scrambling for appointments,” Robinson said. 

Even as the state and county continued to receive more doses and expand its eligibility criteria for receiving the vaccine, Kuna said other obstacles remained in their path. 

She watched the news and saw lines of elderly New Jerseyans waiting for a shot at locations that were sometimes hours away from their homes. Kuna is the sole driver in the household and with her son’s disability necessitating the use of a wheelchair, she knew they had no way of getting to most of the sites operating across the state. 

“I had seen one woman who finally got an appointment but she had to drive two hours each way to get the shot … and then we saw people with their walkers and canes in line for hours waiting for an appointment and that wouldn’t work for us either,” she said. 

Kuna said that it felt like they were being held back from the vaccine just because they lived independently. In 2021, the state prioritized vaccinations for essential workers like healthcare professionals and those living in long-term care facilities, which suffered the most during the early months of the pandemic. 

“We fit the criteria to get the vaccine but because we live fairly independently in our own home, we weren’t eligible to get it now and that had William, my son, lived in a congregate setting like a group home or something he would have already had his second shot,” she said. “And if I lived in an assisted living home or some other congregate or group setting, we would have already had our shots.” 

Then, in February, the state announced it was opening a vaccination site in partnership with FEMA at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset. The site would be the first of its kind to open in the state, in a location specifically targeted to increase access to areas hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically underserved communities of color. The site was announced along with locations in Trenton, Elizabeth, Vineland and Paterson. 

Even though distance was no longer an issue for Kuna, there was one last roadblock between her family and their first dose: They lacked a vehicle that could accommodate her son and his wheelchair. 

That’s when local advocates and township officials stepped in to connect Kuna with county services to provide wheelchair-accessible transport for her son William. Franklin Mayor Phil Kramer said that the township collected a list of 40 residents who needed some kind of transport to the site. 

“It’s not overwhelming but it’s not uncommon that we need to provide this,” he said. 

When the county began working with FEMA, it surveyed residents to identify anyone with transportation issues. 

“It was a no-brainer,” said Robinson. “It was something we had to do, so we set up a day where, geographically, based on where these persons were, to do one day and just vaccinate anyone that needed transportation.” 

But having a vaccination site in Franklin wasn’t just a relief for Kuna and her family, it’s also helping the state address the racial disparities in vaccination that plagued early distribution efforts. In early February, when the state had administered 850,000 doses, only 8% of shots made it into the arms of Black and Hispanic New Jerseyans, state health commissioner Judith Persichilli said. 

“I’m a firm believer in meeting people where they are …so we had to make sure that we were intentional about campaigning and marketing the Black and Latino community and also your most vulnerable regardless of race,” said Robinson. 

According to Robinson, of the over 3,000 doses administered at First Baptist, more than 75% of them have been to residents of color, a stark contrast to state vaccination rates that show Black, Hispanic and Asian residents combined have received about 15% of doses. 

“We’re just gratified that the state chose us to be first and to serve our underserved community,” Mayor Kramer said. “We were number one on the list and got 3,000 people, primarily from Franklin, vaccinated that otherwise would not have been.”

Editors Note: Photo caption updated to reflect the correct name, William McDermott.

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