As we wind up 2021, I just want to take a moment to say I’m proud of you, New Jersey! Now, with all the jokes made about the great Garden State, you might not be used to the compliment, but here is why I am proud of our older residents, in particular.
New Jersey was hit hard early in the pandemic and suffered tremendous loss of life.
When we started 2021, we were on the edge of our seats waiting for the COVID vaccine and a return to normalcy. It was a frantic rollout but once the supply caught up with demand, the older residents in New Jersey led the way in getting vaccinated.
December 15 is the anniversary of the first COVID-19 vaccinations being administered in the state of New Jersey. According to multiple reports, Garden State residents age 65 and over are among the highest vaccinated group in the country. New Jersey is leading the nation in fighting COVID.
Now, I am not talking about politics or the misinformation that is affecting personal decisions on getting vaccinated. I am talking about the facts: Our fellow New Jerseyans over the age of 65 remember growing up in a time before vaccines. They can remember when polio, measles and other contagious diseases would shut down schools and swimming pools, and put communities on edge. They had lived through this before.
We hear the term “unprecedented” used in discussions about COVID, the vaccines and mandates. Yes – this is unprecedented; the last time we saw a health crisis of this magnitude, a true pandemic, was over 100 years ago.
Living through the flu epidemic of 1918
There are a handful of people who lived through the influenza epidemic of 1918, which spread worldwide before we had airplanes, cars and the social interactions we were so accustomed to until COVID arrived. Many of the medical advances we take for granted were not developed – vaccines were in their infancy and penicillin was still 10 years away.
One of my favorite books is Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, written by Gina Kolata and published in 1999. I was deep in my graduate work in public health then and found the book to be a real thriller. (I still do, but realize not everyone shares my interest in contagious things.)
No corner of the globe was left unaffected and the similarities of the 1918 pandemic and COVID-19 are surprising, considering the century of medical progress that has passed in between.
A few years ago, I made a documentary with SOMA (South Orange Maplewood) Two Towns for All Ages, in which we asked older residents about their memories of growing up before vaccines. Stories included children being sent away to family members in the countryside for the summer, to avoid polio. One woman recalled a relative who returned home from World War II a hero, only to succumb to polio a few weeks thereafter. Another witnessed diseases first-hand as a young nurse. Their honest recollections come to my mind every time I hear updates on vaccination rates.
We have come a long way and I am truly proud that people who can remember the time without vaccines took the lead in getting them to not only protect themselves but also others.
Vaccination rates for people 65+: nationwide vs. NJ
As of this writing, the national vaccination rate among adults age 65+ is 90+% ; in NJ it is over 98% with some communities reporting all residents over age 65 are vaccinated.
In addition, vaccination rates for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) NJ residents are above the national average, elevating protection in communities that have been hit hardest by this virus. (Source: NJ Department of Health, USAfacts.org and CDC.gov)
So, well done NJ! Once again, our older neighbors have proven that they are leaders and have so much to teach the rest of us.
I thank all of the people who drew on their life experiences and memories in making their health care decision to get the COVD vaccine. May we all look to your example.
To see the SOMA Two Towns for All Ages documentary “A Time Before Vaccines,” click here. This oral history shares the personal memories of SOMA residents growing up in a time before vaccines, and how now preventable diseases like polio, diphtheria and measles affected their lives.