NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — The Garden State held “Boost NJ Day” on Wednesday in an effort to get more people vaccinated as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

Maritza Beniquez, a nurse from University Hospital in Newark, was the first person vaccinated in New Jersey a year ago.

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“My major goal to get vaccinated was that I didn’t want to be afraid anymore and didn’t want to get sick,” Beniquez told CBS2’s Meg Baker.

Beniquez was with Gov. Phil Murphy to celebrate that milestone and remind people it’s time to get a booster shot.

“Do not think of it as a bonus. It’s a necessity. The data is showing that the natural lessening of the power of the initial vaccination course reopens the door to infection,” Murphy said.

Dr. Charles Farmer was also one of the first to volunteer for the vaccine, just days  after starting his first job in the emergency room of University Hospital.

“I said I am tired of worrying about my own safety,” he said.

“What were you missing out on before the COVID shot?” CBS2’s Jessica Layton asked.

“Oh, for me it was just spending time with my family more than anything,” Farmer  said.

In a city often considered the epicenter of the pandemic in New Jersey, it allowed Farmer to be a leader.

“I have an opportunity to show people in our community, especially people of color, that the vaccine is safe,” he said.

COVID VACCINE

Mother of three Shannel Rivas admits she wasn’t on board with the shot a year ago.

“What ultimately made you decide the vaccine was something you wanted?” Layton asked.

“Because a lot of people were getting sick,” Rivas said.

She credits the outreach in New Jersey’s largest city with changing her mind.

“They put flyers out. They’re always talking about it. The mayor’s always talking about it,” she said.

“Over 70% fully vaccinated. We wanna be higher than that,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said.

Baraka recalled early on, there was a push to get celebrities to advocate for the vaccine, hoping it would help some people overcome their hesitancy. His city took a more personal approach.

“People wanted to see their neighbors, their friends, people they know,” he said.

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So they set up vaccination centers in most neighborhoods.

“If they walk out of their house and it’s there … they’re more apt to take it, and that’s what happened,” Baraka said.

The efforts took the city from a 60% infection rate at one point to now 7%.

Health Commissioner Dr. Judy Persichilli said the state has come a long way but the virus continues to be unrelenting.

“With Delta and the Omicron variant, our battle is beginning again. With waning immunity and increased holiday travel and gatherings, it is critical for everyone to maintain their protection against this virus,” Persichilli said.

Officials say the majority of COVID patients at University Hospital have primarily been unvaccinated, but recently, “Half of our admissions for COVID-19 right now are patients that are fully vaccinated, but not yet boosted. Boosting is necessary to keep folks safe,” president and CEO Shereef Elnahal said.

Watch Meg Baker’s report —

Elnahal was one of the area’s earliest advocates of the vaccine.

“I think we’re in a much better place now than we were a year ago,” he said.

“I would say a year ago, I think we all thought, or hoped anyway, that [the vaccine] would be a silver bullet … For some folks, it feels like the goal post keeps moving. How do we address that?” Layton asked.

“COVID is never really going to go away. The whole point is for it to become … a mild illness that we can address through vaccination,” Elnahal said.

He added it’s looking like we may have to take regular boosters, and he’s worried for the 29% in Newark who have yet to get a single dose.

“It won’t look pretty for folks who are not vaccinated,” he said.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

Meanwhile, Paterson hosted a “Booster Blitz” event as infection rates increase. A “booster cruiser” was getting the word out, Baker reported.

“We want to increase access to vaccinations and to booster shots so we have extended our hours,” Dr. Paul Persaud said.

“I want to stay as safe as I can and not infect anyone else,” Paterson resident Bertha Carroll said.

The health commissioner asked everyone to spread cheer, not COVID, this holiday season, and advised residents to wear a mask and get tested before gatherings.

The governor said there are more than 1,900 places in the state where residents can get a booster shot, including pharmacies, supermarkets, community centers, hospitals, and mega-sites, like the new one in Somerset County at the Bridgewater Commons Mall.

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CBS2’s Meg Baker and Jessica Layton contributed to this report.

CBSNewYork Team