Covid-19 Chronicles from All Corners of the Garden State

Stories of sacrifice, service and resilience.

Call them signs of the times. Handmade signs have sprouted on lawns and in windows all over the Garden State, sharing messages of hop and support amid the fear and suffering of the pandemic. All photos by Ira L. Black, except “Hello Friends” by Laura Baer

Bernardsville

DOING GOOD IN THE WORST OF TIMES

Megan McDowell and her fellow volunteers at Heartworks make it their mission to provide support for families dealing with severe illnesses or grief. The Covid-19 pandemic required more than simple acts of kindness.

“We heard about Covid patients at Morristown Memorial Medical Center who were about to be put on ventilators, but had no way to communicate with their loved ones, unless they borrowed a nurse’s private cell phone,” recalls McDowell. “So we went outside our usual mission to purchase 15 iPads for the hospital.”

McDowell and her cadre of do-gooders are always on the lookout for ways to help. Since the health crisis spread to Central Jersey, the Bernardsville-based group has sent $15,000 in checks to 18 area families; arranged for restaurant deliveries and gift certificates for Covid-19 caregivers; organized car parades for ill and grieving kids; and handled errands for local VFW veterans.

Heartworks was formed after McDowell witnessed an outpouring of kindness when her brother-in-law, John Farrell of Basking Ridge, was killed in the 9/11 attacks. “Heartworks is about taking care of each other the way we did after 9/11. This pandemic is reminiscent of that same feeling. We all need each other,” she says. —Susan Brierly Bush

Camden

FOOD BASKETS, DIAPERS AND MORE—FROM THE HEART

For those seeking to help communities in need, sometimes the biggest challenge is figuring out how to reach into those communities. Heart of Camden has a solution for that. The 36-year-old nonprofit community-development organization acts as liaison between donors and some of Camden’s most vulnerable residents.

“We’re on the ground,” says Carlos Morales, Heart of Camden’s executive director. “We have the benefit of being an organization that people historically have donated to, and connections within the community to get things out quickly.”

Soon after statewide stay-in-place orders were issued, Heart of Camden distributed boxes of food from Virtua Hospital’s Food Pantry to 100 families in Camden’s Waterfront South neighborhood. The following week, Goodwill of South Jersey offered a U-Haul full of adult and baby diapers, which Heart of Camden delivered to homeless people and assisted-living residents. Next up was a Sewing for Seniors campaign, with Heart of Camden asking anyone with needlework skills to help sew face masks for 250 seniors.

“A lot of our seniors are living by themselves. They’re worried and scared,” says Morales. “And with the governor requiring everyone to wear a mask going to the grocery store, getting these face masks delivered is even more critical.” —Jill P. Capuzzo

Courtesy of Samantha Derose

Clifton

HASTY REVAMP FOR SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM

On March 12, Mark Gengaro received the shocking news: effective March 16, New Jersey schools would close to reduce the spread of Covid-19. The district administrator of climate and security for the Clifton Public School District faced a huge challenge: overhauling the state-sanctioned free- and reduced-lunch program to meet social-distancing regulations.

“We didn’t have a lot of time,” says Gengaro. And there was a lot to do. Gengaro and his team developed instructions and maps for the students who qualify for the program—roughly 55 percent of the district’s kids. The information was written in English, Spanish and Arabic—the most common languages of the more than 70 spoken at the district’s 19 public schools.

On March 17, the revamped nutrition service was up and running at three schools designated as drive-thru and walk-up distribution sites.

To minimize contact exposure, meals are distributed on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10–11:30 am—a small window of time to serve a total of 10,000–12,000 meals weekly. Printed packets of schoolwork are also distributed to families who may not have Internet access. At each location, it’s all hands on deck. Six custodians clean tables. About a dozen staff members don gloves and masks to serve food. Behind the scenes, 15 workers from Pomptonian, the district’s food service, prepare the meals.

To boost morale, music is played at the pick-up locations, and teachers or administrators are present. “[Students] smile when they see their principal helping distribute the meals,” says Gengaro.

Once the rush dies down, the staff sometimes delivers food and instructional packets to qualified students who could not retrieve the packages. “We understand that this is the only meal that a family may even get,” says Gengaro. —Jacqueline Klecak

Courtesy of Mary Alex

Haddonfield

SOCIALLY DISTANT SCULPTURES

The mailman is wearing a face mask, as is the older couple on the bench. It’s a sign of the times that some of the life-size sculptures in and around Haddonfield’s historic downtown have been outfitted in protective gear.

The whimsical installations began in 2014, and there are now 20 sculptures in the central business district of this Camden County town. Some, like the couple—Steadfast and Loyal, by artist Ken Ross—are permanent; other pieces rotate.

The Haddonfield Outdoor Sculpture Trust was the brainchild of Stuart Harting, who envisioned the public art as a regional draw for the borough. In addition to the downtown installations, there is a Children’s Sculpture Garden in Tatem Park that features a bronze sea lion, toad and rabbit.

A 13-foot giraffe was supposed to be added to the menagerie in April during Haddonfield’s second Annual Sculpture Month, but his arrival was delayed by the state lockdown.

A naming contest for the giraffe resides online. “This is a temporary setback,” explains Harting. “The giraffe is still looking forward to a trip to Haddonfield.” —Patricia Alex

Rich Rollison Photo by Laura Moss

Jersey City

DAYS OF FEAR, A LIFETIME OF GRATITUDE

A week before Easter Sunday, Jersey City resident Rich Rollison, 68, came down with a range of symptoms: aches, chills and a deep cough. Within 48 hours, he made the short walk from his home to Christ Hospital, where he lay on a gurney in an ER hallway for 14 hours until a room was available. A few days later, Rollison’s Covid-19 test came back positive. “I’ve never felt so bad in my life,” he says. “I would literally just lay and stare at the ceiling for hours and listen to all the sounds of disaster around me.”

Released after six days, Rollison calls the six-day hospital stay a “life-changing experience.” He will be forever grateful to his health care workers. “They’re risking their lives to go to work every day,” he says. “Everyone was so kind and upbeat, and I really appreciated it, because I was scared.”

Rollison says he is surprised to see some people not following social-distancing guidelines. “I was really careful. I wore gloves and masks everywhere,” he says. “It just amazes me that people aren’t taking it more serious.” —Shelby Vittek

Nutley

TEACHER REVEALS A SILVER LINING

As a first-grade teacher at Nutley’s Washington School for 16 years, Kristen Fazio knows the importance of being adaptable. That skill came in handy during the speedy transition to remote teaching in mid-March.

On the last day of in-school instruction, Fazio and her colleagues scrambled to brief their students on Schoology, a virtual learning system. The teachers were also navigating new territory: how to simulate the classroom environment from afar.

“That’s the difficult thing with this,” says Fazio. “You have to meet their needs, but it’s hard to through the computer.” Suddenly, parents or guardians had to play larger roles. Fazio’s 6- and 7-year-old students need an adult’s help using the computer and completing work. For a teacher, that means being more flexible. The virtual school day runs 9:30 am–noon and 2–3 pm, but Fazio fields emails and phone calls after hours from working parents.

Brainstorming with fellow teachers has eased the adjustment to distance learning. “I’m grateful for the good teamwork,” she says.

Raz-Kids, an online guided-reading program, has been a lifesaver. Through the program, students record themselves reading, and teachers offer feedback. Another useful tool: Google Meet, a video-conferencing service that gives Fazio’s 20 students the opportunity to see each other and Fazio.

The lockdown, says Fazio, “has become a learning experience for everybody. That’s the little silver lining.” —JK

Dr. Anish Samuel Photo by Laura Baer

Nutley

OUT OF THE ICU AND INTO THE DRIVEWAY

Dr. Anish Samuel wasn’t taking any chances. With a 2-year-old son and a very pregnant wife at home, Samuel, an ICU doctor specializing in pulmonary care at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, knew extreme precautions were needed to protect his family from the coronavirus.  Samuel was working on the front lines against the disease; even the most intense daily cleansing routine wasn’t enough. There was only one thing to be done: He had to move out.

Luckily, Samuel heard about a Facebook group called RVs for MDs. After completing an application, he connected with an RV owner in West Orange, who took his camper out of storage and hauled it to Samuel’s driveway in Nutley.

Shortly after Samuel moved into the RV, his wife, Jessica, a nurse anesthetist, gave birth to a baby girl. Now her parents are staying with her to help care for the infant.

Paterson’s CUMAC food pantry Courtesy of CUMAC

Paterson

FOOD PANTRY ADDRESSES HUNGER—AND FEAR

Before Covid-19, the Father English Community Center food pantry in Paterson allowed people to visit only once a month. But when the quarantine threw thousands of people out of work, that restriction was lifted.

“Anytime they need food, they can come to us,” says Carlos Roldan, program director for the pantry. “They are scared. They don’t need to be hungry.”

Worst hit, he says, are undocumented immigrants who have lost jobs, but are shut out of unemployment insurance, food stamps and Covid-related stimulus checks. “They will not get anything,” says Roldan.

The food bank, run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Paterson, usually serves about 7,000 people a month. By late April, it was on track to serve more than double that number.

The numbers are also up at the nearby CUMAC food pantry. Both Paterson pantries try to keep workers and clients at a safe distance. “We don’t want to spread the virus, yet we want to stay open to make sure we feed as many people as we can,” says Rose Bates, director of community engagement at CUMAC. —Kathleen Lynn

Courtesy of Rick Cura

Princeton

FROM KEEPSAKES TO HOSPITAL ESSENTIALS

In early April, orders ground to a halt at Patchwork Bear, Jennifer Cura’s Princeton-based keepsake company. At the time, Cura didn’t expect to put her sewing skills to use for an entirely new purpose. Then she heard from Dr. Garrett Sutter, chairman of emergency medicine at Capital Health Hospitals and a fellow parent at her children’s school.

Anticipating a shortage in protective gear at the Trenton and Hopewell hospitals that comprise the Capital system, Sutter asked Cura if she could design an isolation gown. The 50-year-old Cura, who normally makes stuffed memory animals and quilts out of saved clothing, sprang into action, creating sample gowns made of both Tyvek and muslin. Neither material fit the bill.

Ultimately, focusing on a durable gown that could be washed and reused, Cura scored quilting material from a fabric warehouse in Paterson. Sew-on cuffs came from a sweatshirt manufacturer in Pennsylvania. After testing the new prototype, hospital personnel suggested that the Velcro fasteners be replaced with wrap-around ties. “They wanted something they could change out of quickly and they could do by themselves,” says Cura.

The order was placed: 1,000 gowns, stat.

Cura brought home four sewing machines from her Princeton studio and recruited her son, Luke, and daughter, Mia, to help sew the gowns. Husband Rick cut the fabric. Needing more help, Cura turned to Trenton-based Switlik, a supplier of inflatable vests and rafts for the military. Monies raised on GoFundMe supported the project. In fewer than three weeks, the unlikely team was able to fulfill the hospital’s needs. Subsequently, Cura’s family sewed gowns and masks for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“She’s not a medical person, she’s just someone who was able to fill a breach,” says Sutter of Cura’s ingenuity. “The people who are wearing these gowns are really appreciative.” —JPC

Ridgefield Park

TEMPERS FLARE IN THE GROCERY AISLES

There are some days when Christina Thomas doesn’t feel like going to her part-time job at the Ridgefield Park IGA. But, says Thomas, “I know that if I don’t go into work, there’s no one there to take my spot.”

Thomas, a student at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, returned home to Bogota when classroom teaching was suspended and began picking up shifts at the Village IGA, where she has worked on and off for the past three years. The coronavirus hit Bergen County hard, and the store is often short-staffed, putting extra pressure on Thomas. She says it’s difficult to complete her duties at the store while also enforcing social distancing. What’s more, conditions at the store are often hectic and can grow contentious. Tempers have flared.  “Lines are going down the aisles, and people are snapping at each other saying, ‘Stay six feet back’ and ‘Where’s your mask?’” she says.

While some shoppers are on edge, others maintain their neighborliness and inquire about her life—just as they did before the pandemic. “A lot of people are caring,” says Thomas. “They’ll ask me how I’m doing, even though they don’t know my first name. But now, there’s a gloominess to it.” —Royal Thomas II

Courtesy of Jeff Rhode/Holy Name Medical Center

Teaneck

IMPROVISING A NEW ICU

A tsunami of Covid-19 patients slammed Holy Name Medical Center in March. Beds were in short supply; isolation pods were needed.

Steven L. Mosser, vice president for facilities, met with workers on a Sunday to lay out the challenge. They had to move fast; there was no time to wait for construction materials to be delivered.

“It was like a scene from Apollo 13,” says Mosser, who told his crew, “If it’s not available today, we can’t use it.” The team fanned out to multiple Home Depot and Lowe’s stores to grab supplies.

Within a month, 30 facilities employees and 50 contractors, plus volunteers from around the building, transformed the hospital. They increased the number of intensive care beds from 19 to 121. The number of beds in negative-pressure rooms, where contaminated air is vented outside, was upped from 12 to 276. They used plexiglass, duct tape and PVC pipe to fashion more than 200 makeshift iso-pods, which surround patients to limit the spread of contagion. Holy Name is seeking a patent for its iso-pod design, but in the meantime, sharing it with other hospitals on YouTube.

Normally, creating a new intensive care unit would take nine months of planning, permitting and bids. Holy Name built two in a matter of weeks.

Unlike his medical colleagues, Mosser, a mechanical engineer by training,  doesn’t usually get to save lives, but he feels that his Covid-19 efforts probably did just that.

“That’s probably the most rewarding thing you can do,’’ he says. —KL

UPS driver Mike Canfield Photo by Laura Baer

Delivering to Bloomfield and beyond

WORKING TIRELESSLY

UPS driver Mike Canfield has done more than his share during the coronavirus lockdown. “I’m doing more stops than at Christmas,” says Canfield. “It’s not the volume that’s greater, it’s the number of stops. I usually do 120 stops in a day; now I’m doing 200.” People throughout New Jersey gained a fresh appreciation for postal workers and drivers like Canfield, who have been bringing the world to their doorsteps throughout the health crisis.

Voorhees

EMPTY SHELTER PIVOTS TO PROVIDING PET FOOD

Like most things in the era of coronavirus, it’s anything but business as usual at the oldest and largest no-kill animal shelter in South Jersey.

The Animal Welfare Association in Voorhees has been nearly emptied, with most animals placed in foster care for the duration of the state lockdown. Adoptions, intake and veterinary services have been curtailed. A long-awaited construction project is on hold, staff has been furloughed, and the organization’s largest fundraiser—a 5K walkathon—was moved online.

But food-pantry programs for pets have tripled in response to community need, says Maya Richmond, executive director at AWA. “Our whole world has had to pivot and change,” she says. “We’re looking for ways to take the pain out of people’s financial losses.”

AWA partnered with two local churches and the Voorhees Police Department to deliver donated pet food and supplies to home-bound people and pets. The shelter continues to operate its Chow Stops program, delivering those items to needy pet owners in Camden. —PA

Courtesy of Elin Delghiaccio

Washington Township

MAKING FACE SHIELDS AT WARP SPEED

What started as a small project by the robotics and computer clubs at Warren Hills Regional High School quickly snowballed into a community-wide volunteer effort that produced more than 15,000 face shields.

Junior Bobby Delghiaccio got the ball rolling when he borrowed the school’s 3D printer to make anchoring clasps for surgical masks. The concept worked, but it was too slow, he says. Club advisor Daryl Detrick then found a simple pattern for clear plastic face shield, and snagged the sought-after components on the Internet, “just a few days ahead of the curve.”

The club gave kits of clear plastic, foam strips, double-sided tape and tie clasps to 200 area families. Within 48 hours, those families assembled 15,000 shields in kitchens and dining rooms throughout Warren County. With similar speed, a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $40,000. Students at Mt. Olive High School got involved as well.

The shields were distributed to hospitals, nursing homes and EMT workers throughout the region.

The project taught an important lesson. “I’ve learned our community is awesome,” says Delghiaccio. “In not a lot of time, we were able to accomplish an amazing amount.” —Kathleen O’Brien

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