BY Tom Moran
August 1, 2021
Paterson’s old roads are crumbling, its gutters are clogged with litter, and its sidewalks are home to addicts with nowhere better to go. Metal grills cover vacant storefronts in the heart of the downtown, one after another. Roughly one in three people here was poor even before the pandemic, and the housing stock is notoriously crowded and decrepit, with immigrants of every kind crammed together.
For the Delta variant, this densely packed city of 150,000 seems like an open invitation to a rampage, a hot spot waiting to happen, the kind of place where it’s especially tough to get shots into arms.
But something special is happening in Paterson, thanks to an energetic mayor, Andre Sayegh, an all-star Division of Health, and a coalition of religious and civic leaders who have worked a sort of miracle here, getting at least one shot of the vaccine into 76 percent of the adult population.
“There is something good happening in Paterson,” says Pastor Randy Lassiter of the Calvary Baptist Church on 18th Street, a community center. “This is still a scary time. But this is a big deal. This is one time when the government has worked.”
The 76 percent in Paterson beats the number in nearby suburbs like Little Falls (57 percent) and Garfield (60 percent). And it crushes the number in most poor cities, including East Orange (53 percent), Irvington (53 percent), and Newark (64 percent).
How’d they do it? I searched for a silver bullet and found a dozen of them. It is an all-hands effort organized by the city, but dependent on pop-up vaccine tents at churches and hospitals, mobile vans, and hundreds of volunteers who refused to let their city take punches without putting up a fight.
As Lassiter puts it, “This city kind of gets into your bones.”
Paterson distinguished itself early by throwing open its doors to people from outside town, offering vaccines to anyone who wanted it. That was Sayegh’s decision, and he got a ton of heat for it as long lines formed, often packed with people from the suburbs whose local governments were not so quick.
“Word got out and there were people here from as far as Ocean County,” Sayegh says. “But we had to do it. This virus doesn’t know anything about borders. I had a 95-year-old say to me, ‘Mayor, I live in Clifton. I just want to live.’ So, we took him in. He lives in the town over and we’re not going let him get vaccinated while we have vaccine?”
It was a tough call, and even today some wonder if it was the right one. But Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, is not among them.
“It’s brilliant,” Halkitis says. “It recognizes that we don’t live in one neighborhood or one block, that people who come to Paterson every day don’t live in Paterson.”
Paterson’s secret weapon in this fight, Halkitis says, is its Division of Health, which built trust in the community long before Covid arrived, through its drives to immunize children, screen for chronic diseases, and other efforts.
One of its first big tactical decisions was to opt out of the state’s troubled system for scheduling vaccination appointments, instead building its own system, with appointments part of the day, and walk-ins during other hours. The mobile vans brought vaccines to public housing towers and other spots, day and night, with city staffers and volunteers working the sidewalks to find takers. The city set up its own contract tracing system, which Halkitis described as the best in the state.
“They were the rock stars of contact tracing,” he says. “It’s all very impressive.”
For Paterson’s government to win effusive praise may surprise those who know the city’s long and tragic history of corruption. At city hall, two giant portraits hang over the stairway leading down from the mayor’s office — former mayors Marty Barnes, a Republican, and Joey Torres, the Democrat who replaced him. Both ended their careers behind bars on corruption charges.
Sayegh seems a very different character. A Paterson native and the city’s first Arab mayor, he has a whiff of Cory Booker about him, full of energy and captivated by talk about policy and his city’s potential. Talk to people in the vaccine effort, and they all point to him first.
“The mayor was down here five times a day walking the line,” says Monsignor Geno Sylva of St. John’s, the big Catholic church in the city’s downtown, which served as a hub of the vaccination effort. “And then he’d call later and say, ‘Pastor, we’ve got 10 more for you.’”
St. Joseph’s Hospital, which set up huge vaccination centers in the city, was another key player. “The mayor and I were on the phone every day and night, sometimes two or three times,” says Kevin Slavin, the hospital’s CEO.
Engaging trusted groups like these gave the city not just volunteer hands, phone banks, and vaccine tents. It built bridges, based on the trust they had earned. And it gave the mayor solid information from the front lines.
Lassiter, for example, told the mayor that concern about Black people being reluctant to take the vaccine was overblown, and that when vaccine supplies arrived, he found plenty of takers in his flock after organizing a phone bank to reach out. “You had the benefit that the call was coming from Calvary,” Lassiter said.
At St. Johns, the monsignor recalled a woman who had lost her husband but was still reluctant to take the vaccine until her son convinced her. “The moment they found out the Cathedral was giving vaccines, she said ‘Yes.’ People were nervous, so when they saw our faces, it helped,” he says.
Paul Persaud, director of the city’s Division of Health, is a friendly but no-nonsense guy with cardboard boxes stacked in his crowded office, a man with pressing work who has thrown the frills overboard. He says he urged giving shots to all-comers because it was the best way to fight the spread. He allowed walk-ins from the start, not just appointments, because it fits the local need. And his van goes out at night because that’s where the arms are. “We do what we have to do,” he says.
It’s getting harder now, Persaud says, because the easy cases have already gotten their jabs.
“We’re almost on top of the mountain, but as you climb the mountain it gets harder, it becomes steeper,” he says. “That’s where we are now. We’re reaching the hardest segment, people who come home at night after working in factories, people who can’t take the day off to get the vaccine.”
My money is on this crew finding a way to keep climbing, even as it gets steeper. Persaud knows what he’s doing, and Halkitis gives the mayor credit for listening, and having the guts to try new things.
“Leaders lead,” Halkitis says. “And leaders who aren’t afraid to take risks are the kind you want running a city like Paterson right now.”
It’s been a depressing week in the long fight against this pandemic. It might help cheer you up to look at Paterson’s success. Who would have guessed?
Original article can be found here.