I went to a COVID vaccine parade in N.J. Here’s what I saw. – NJ.com

Since COVID-19 vaccines became widely available in early 2021, I’ve read online about the array of approaches cities and states have taken to get people inoculated.

Incentives have been popular.

Beer on the house, free concert tickets and complimentary donuts have popped up in New Jersey alone. Elsewhere in the country, residents have been offered perks like free produce and $50 gift cards.

So, when I heard that Camden was planning a coronavirus vaccine parade, I wasn’t surprised.

But I was curious.

Arriving at the Branches at Centerville apartment complex on South 9th Street, I first spotted Camden police department’s polaris slingshot — a bat-mobile-like vehicle that was revving up for the march up toward Whitman Park.

Also on hand for the procession: A Mister Softee ice cream truck, a fire truck and a Cooper hospital mobile services vehicle.

“We’ve gone through dark times since last year and we’re facing an uphill battle but we’re going to get there by any means necessary,” Mayor Vic Carstarphen said upon arrival.

Carstarphen, holding a bullhorn in hand, then headed inside to give the cheerleaders a pep talk prior to the parade kick-off.

COVID-19 vaccine parade in Camden,  Aug. 10, 2021.

Aaron Lofland, 36, of Camden, smiles after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.Joe Warner | For NJ Advance Media

A county spokesman told me that since the mayor was sworn in in May he has advocated in person for more people to get vaccinated. Carstarphen, joined by other local officials, recently took that a step further — knocking on doors to answer questions or discuss vaccine hesitancy.

Camden health officials said in the last four weeks the hard-hit city — which has nearly 1/5 of the county’s more than 50,000 cases — has seen a 5% increase in the number of residents 18 and older who have gotten their shot. However, that figure still stands at 59%. The goal is a minimum of 70% — with the virus’ Delta variant becoming more prevalent statewide.

Tuesday’s parade was created to remove as many barriers as possible from the process, officials told me. To get a shot, residents had to simply agree and show their ID.

As the parade began, the mayor stood in front of about 50 marchers, megaphone in hand. “This is how important this is!” he shouted up the street.

Camden High School cheerleaders waved their hot pink pom poms in response. “Let’s get vaccinated!” they chanted in unison.

A couple on their porch looked over curiously. Construction workers, braving a 90-degree workday, waved and confirmed they got their shots. A man in his pick-up truck honked his horn and gave a thumbs up as well.

More than one passerby stopped to engage with the mayor, drawn by the sirens of the trucks and the cheers.

Eric Matthews said he was on a grocery run. Having lost family members to the coronavirus, he had long gotten his vaccine.

“More people need to step up and we need to let everyone know how easy this is,” the 50-year-old Camden resident said.

At one corner, the mayor entered a barbershop to share with customers that clinics to get a free vaccination were a short walk away.

COVID-19 vaccine parade in Camden,  Aug. 10, 2021.

Jose Ruiz, 38, of Camden, shows off his COVID-19 vaccine card, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. Joe Warner | For NJ Advance Media

Ten minutes later, the parade convinced one man, Aaron Lofland, to roll up his sleeve.

In all, ten people got their shots on the spot Tuesday — with help from Cooper and Rutgers’ school of nursing students — who administered doses of the vaccine at the parade. Adults received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, while children were given the Pfizer shot (and an appointment for Aug. 30 for their second doses).

“I’m not getting a free shot, but I’ll take a free ice cream,” one resident quipped upon seeing Lofland get his vaccine sticker.

Officials said, despite the relatively low total, they had convinced others to consider getting the shot and spread the word — debunking false theories or misinformation about the vaccine in the process.

The mayor also noted he would not rule out future parades based on the response.

“Early on I got the coronavirus, and thanks to God I’ve recovered,” Ramon Rodriguez, 44, told me in Spanish inside a Boost Mobile store moments before he got his shot.

Miguel Torres and Yariel Torres, both 13, were at the store with Rodriguez — their uncle who works at a nearby bodega. They got their shots, as well.

“It’s nothing,” Rodriguez said while getting the injection and looking over to the teenagers. Both smiled, recording on their phones.

The owner of the store, at first reluctant, looked over too. After a slight pause, he then caved as well — agreeing to get the shot then and there.

“That’s the goal right there,” a county spokesman said to me back at the complex where the parade concluded. “Just one at a time.”

Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.

Steven Rodas may be reached at srodas@njadvancemedia.com.