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COVID-19

In New Jersey, a small pharmacy and a neighborhood get ready for the vaccine

Marielle Segarra Mar 2, 2021
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A nurse vaccinates a woman in Los Angeles. In New Jersey, pharmacist Tony Minniti is preparing to host vaccinations for community members. Mario Tama/Getty Images
COVID-19

In New Jersey, a small pharmacy and a neighborhood get ready for the vaccine

Marielle Segarra Mar 2, 2021
Heard on:
A nurse vaccinates a woman in Los Angeles. In New Jersey, pharmacist Tony Minniti is preparing to host vaccinations for community members. Mario Tama/Getty Images
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In Camden, New Jersey, at the corner of Haddon and Kaighn avenues, you’ll find a doughnut shop, a discount store, a barbershop and a 90-year-old business called Bell Pharmacy.

Haddon Avenue in Camden, New Jersey. (Marielle Segarra/Marketplace)

Inside, it’s basically a big, open room, with the pharmacists in the back, behind bulletproof glass. And there are all these pharmaceutical artifacts on display, like glass apothecary bottles and an old-fashioned scale on the floor that says, “Weigh your fate” in black letters.

“You put a penny in, it used to give fortunes. We can’t get them anymore, but the scale still works,” said Tony Minniti, the head pharmacist and owner, who showed me around the other day.

He led me into a small room off the main pharmacy. That’s where the COVID-19 vaccinations will happen.


Tony Minniti, owner of Bell Pharmacy. (Marielle Segarra/Marketplace)

Minniti has been mapping it out in his mind for weeks. 

“In this area here, we’re probably going to have an intake desk with likely either the pharmacist or one of the pharmacy students, making sure all the patient paperwork is in order,” he said.

Then they’ll direct patients to one of the three vaccine stations at tables set up around the room.  

After the shot, patients will go back to the main room and wait for 15 minutes.

“It seems like it’s just so easy,” Minniti said. “People come and get a shot, right?”

It’s not.

“Every little detail has to be worked out,” he said.

Does he have enough protective gear for staff? Does he have enough staff to run the pharmacy and do vaccinations? The answer to that is no, so he’s trying to hire nurses to help.

Minniti needs to figure all this out before he can start booking appointments. “We have to have all the time slots manned before we even start scheduling,” he said.

But he can’t schedule appointments yet anyway because he doesn’t know when the vaccine is coming.

“It could be tomorrow,” he said. “It could be a month from now.”

His vaccine distributor keeps pushing the delivery date back. Last he heard it was March or April. 

And oh, by the way, he doesn’t know which vaccine he’s getting or how many doses.

Then there’s this: Bell is a community pharmacy. And Minniti, who lives in a nearby suburb, wants to make sure he’s vaccinating the people in this community, known as Parkside. Most of the people who live in Parkside are Black. Black Americans are more likely to get COVID-19 and die from it. They have also been vaccinated at much lower rates than white Americans.

Minniti, who is white, has partnered with local churches and community groups to get the word out. 

In early February, he hopped on the phone with Sheilah Greene, community outreach specialist at Parkside Business & Community in Partnership.

Greene had been talking to residents about the vaccine, and she told Minniti: This is partly about trust. People have questions.

“Like, well, who is Pfizer? Who runs Pfizer? Who runs Moderna? Who runs Johnson & Johnson?” she said.

She told him he should also be thinking about the people who can’t come to the pharmacy.

“How do we get the vaccine to them?” she said. “There are some that may be bedridden. There are some that may be just, you know, locked down in their house.”

I talked to Greene the other day. She’s also worried about Parkside’s seniors — many are having trouble signing up for vaccine appointments.  

“A lot of the people that live here are people that have been here since the mid-’50s. And they’re older,” she said. “So when they have to go online and have to sign up, it may be a little bit difficult for them.”

So, she said, her group will soon go door to door — talk to residents, answer questions and help them sign up for a vaccine waitlist at Bell Pharmacy. 

Here’s the key thing: Before anyone makes an appointment, they’ll have to say where they live. And the pharmacy says it’ll vaccinate residents of Parkside first.

Greene has lost people to COVID-19. Her friend’s husband. Her aunt. It’s weighing on her.

“I hate for the phone to ring because somebody is gonna tell me somebody died,” she said. “I don’t want to watch the news. Because I keep seeing numbers that get bigger and bigger and bigger.”

But this work is keeping her going. 

As for Minniti, he’s ready to get started. And he’s nervous.

“There are very few times when you have the ability to do something where your community is really, really depending on you,” he said.

He doesn’t want to mess this up. So he’s constantly going over all the details in his head. He’ll probably keep doing that even after those vaccine vials arrive.

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