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COVID Vaccine: New Jersey ER Nurse Maritza Beniquez Receives State's 1st Dose On Her Birthday

MORRISTOWN, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- As the numbers in New Jersey take a turn for the worse, health care workers received the first coronavirus vaccinations in the state.

They're facing another tough battle as hospitals are again overwhelmed with COVID.

As CBS2's Meg Baker reports, half a dozen employees of Morristown Medical Center were vaccinated Tuesday - initial doses to protect essential workers.

The rollout started Tuesday morning at University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey's hardest hit area.

WATCH: New Jersey Administers 1st COVID Vaccines At University Hospital 

"It makes me feel a little more comfortable that I'm not going to bring it home it to my family. That's probably my greatest concern," said Dr. Charles Marmer.

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On her 56th birthday, University Hospital emergency room nurse and grandmother Maritza Beniquez became the first person in the Garden State to get the COVID-19 vaccine, outside of trials. (CBS2)

On her 56th birthday, University Hospital emergency room nurse and grandmother Maritza Beniquez became the first person in the Garden State to get the COVID-19 vaccine, outside of trials.

"I won't have to be afraid to go into a room anymore. I won't have to be afraid to perform chest compressions," Beniquez told reporters. "Our ER is busy on a good day. When COVID came, it was the worst of our days. It was our worst nightmare, with wave after wave of critical patients with no end in sight."

Beniquez said she's pained by how disproportionately communities of color have been devastated by the disease.

"As a woman of color and a Latina, I know that we are three times more than likely to suffer the catastrophic effects of this disease," she said.

More than 3,600 people are hospitalized in New Jersey.

Gov. Phil Murphy is reminding everyone we are still fighting a battle, but can see the horizon with these vaccines.

"We know that we are witnessing at least the beginning of the end," he said.

Tuesday, an FDA panel declared the Moderna vaccine safe and effective. Once it is vaccine is approved, the state is expected to receive more than 150,000 doses in the first shipment. Distribution could begin as soon as next week.

"Our health care workers and long term care facility residents and staff remain our top priority for initial vaccinations, but it is our hope that soon enough, our attention will be able to turn to vaccinating other frontline workers, vulnerable communities, and ultimately the general public," Murphy said.

Dr. Perry Halkitis with Rutgers School of Public Health says vaccination hesitancy will be the biggest obstacle, and calls the healthcare workers getting vaccinated role models.

"Lack of vaccination is what will undermine herd immunity," he said.


Health experts say regular folks can expect to be able to receive the vaccine within the next six months.

As CBS2's John Dias reported, the state is still in for more hard months, especially the next few weeks. But these first doses will help give frontline workers a shot at battling back the coronavirus pandemic.

Hospitalizations in New Jersey have increased to the highest number since mid-May.

Starting Tuesday, 600 health care workers will be vaccinated daily at University Hospital.

Five other New Jersey hospitals, including Hackensack Meridian Health are working nonstop to inject their staff. By the end of the week, 47 other hospitals will be doing the same.

MORE: New York Health Care Workers Feeling Good After State's 1st Shots

The governor hopes officials can overlap waves to ensure progress.

"As one group of vaccine recipients receives their second dose, a new tranche of recipients will be receiving their first," he said.

Murphy said if he could, he would get the vaccine right now. But he'll wait until after frontline workers and the most at risk get their chance.

Watch Meg Baker's report --

Meanwhile in New York, a bright pink arrow points to the pod where hundreds of frontline workers at Mount Sinai Morningside got a new line of protection. Juliana Arantes, 33, was among the first vaccinated there.

"I'm very grateful that I was chosen to take the COVID-19 vaccine today," she said.

It's a shot at feeling normal again for the rehabilitation physical therapist, CBS2's Jessica Layton reports.

"A chance to, like, be healthy, safe," Arantes said.

It's also a chance to feel comfortable around her friends, family and even the most critically ill patients she's helped regain strength.

"This is how we beat back this virus and reclaim our lives," Mount Sinai Morningside President Arthur Gianelli said.

The government plans to deliver 2.9 million Pfizer doses to 636 locations this week with hopes of vaccinating 50 million people by February.


Jessica Layton, Meg Baker and John Dias contributed to this report. 

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