OCEAN COUNTY, NJ - A name change three years ago morphed into a self-fulfilling prophecy for the arena located on the Toms River North campus.

RWJBarnabas Health paid the Toms River Regional School District a hefty sum for naming rights in January 2018. The hospital system branded the arena with its logo on the exterior signage.

Headliner artists like Richie Sambora and Daughtry attracted massive audiences to the newly named RWJBarnabas Health Arena. The Toms River Mariners high school basketball team calls the venue home.

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An arena with over 3200 seats provides the perfect space for concerts, sporting events, and even graduations. And - ample room for an unpredictable metamorphosis.

The RWJBarnabas Health Arena now serves as Ocean County’s largest COVID-19 vaccination site led by the Ocean County Health Department.

An Ocean County Sheriff’s patrol car sits outside the arena with flashing lights.  An officer stationed by the entrance exchanges pleasantries as person after person approaches the door.

A first aid crew unloads a stretcher from an ambulance. They carefully roll a patient into the arena who can’t make it in on foot or in a wheelchair. They’ll move to the head of the line for physically challenged people in search of protection against COVID-19.

Newly arriving observers avert their eyes after EMTs return to the rig and prepare to leave the scene. They think the worst – some wondering if they should turn back themselves.

No one mumbles a word as a lady makes the sign of the cross. Misconceptions create misguided apprehension. Not one person vaccinated at the location has suffered a reaction requiring an emergency transport.

One set of doors provides access to first responders seeking their first or second shot in the arm. A familiar looking man dressed in a suit and tie greets them all as though they are long-lost friends.

Anytime the vaccination center is open, Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy makes sure he’s there in person. With nearly fifty years in law enforcement, the Sheriff knows more than a little about emergency management.

A television monitor inconspicuously hangs near the area where people approach the desk to sign in for their vaccination. No one really notices it there or the role it plays in the vaccination center.

“We were a major impetus in the county installing the software these displays give us,” says Mastronardy. “The equipment sounds an alarm if anyone comes in with a temperature of over 100.4. ° Ironically, one hasn’t gone off at all in here.”

Mastronardy goes through a long list of people he wants to ensure get credit for their work. He introduces Kim from his office and explains the presence of officers from his department. They handle security and assist people who have a hard time getting around. A Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) also provides volunteer assistance throughout the arena.

A woman approaches the table and politely interrupts to explain she misplaced her license and is hopeful someone turned it in. Mastronardy confirms the woman’s name and offers her an unexpected answer.

“We had someone bring it to your house,” says Mastronardy. “It will be there when you get home.”

The gesture might seem inconsequential to some. The relief in the woman’s eyes shows her appreciation even more than her words. It’s the small things Mastronardy does that all add up with his bigger accomplishments.  He sums up the reason he puts in countless hours and passes on praise to others.

“I am blessed,” Mastronardy shares, in a rare quiet moment. “I like giving to people and helping them.”

The Sheriff and Dr. Mukesh Roy, Director of Public Health Preparedness for the Ocean County Health Department are infected with the same drive. They both put in the same long hours and don’t look at what they are doing as a job.

Roy sees his work in public service as giving back to the country who gave his family so much when they immigrated from India. He achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and moved on to work for the Ocean County Health Department.

Two thousand people were scheduled at the vaccine center on Tuesday alone. Roy works with everyone to ensure they are treated well and made comfortable.

“We see a lot of anxiety in people when they come in to get a shot,” says Roy. “The set up in the center looks a little overwhelming to people because they are not used to seeing such a huge venue.” 

A snapshot of the vaccination center could easily be mistaken for the holding area reserved for vacationers boarding a cruise ship. Volunteers wave people from the back of designated lines to someone available to administer their shots.  

On Tuesday, six rows of people waited for their second dose of the vaccine. Three rows were reserved for first time rounds. Roy wishes there were more shots available, noting that seniors make up thirty percent of Ocean County’s population. Manchester and Berkeley are two of the top communities in the nation with residents over age 80.

Between 15-20 nurses administer shots on the days the vaccination center is operational. A special team of volunteers comes in to lend a helping hand on Saturdays.

“I have a great relationship with the Monmouth-Ocean County Indian Physicians Association,” Roy shares. “They provide me with 20 doctors every Saturday to help with the shots.”

A Medical Reserve Corps. made of medical and non-medical volunteers chip in their help as well. Restaurants and delis donate food to feed the volunteers.

“The community has really embraced this response,” says Roy. “People are constantly coming to me to ask how they can help.”

Roy marvels at the support the health department receives from government officials. Almost on cue, Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer walks in, followed by Director Gary Quinn of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners. Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, the Director of Administration for the Ocean County Health stops in as well.

The transformed vaccination center does not just bear the name of RWJBarnabas Health Arena. Roy refers to the hospital system as an integral partner as he introduces Dr. Teri Kubel, a Vice President of Community Medical Center/RWJBarnabas Health.

“We help provide staffing to administer the vaccines,” Kubel explains. “You’ll see me jump in to help give them as well.”  

A scoreboard tracks the number of vaccinations administered in the center. Roy continues to hope supplies increase so the tallies go up and risks go down. 

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