PERTH AMBOY — One year ago, with the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine in its infancy, this Middlesex County city had the No. 1 coronavirus infection rate among the county's 25 municipalities.

To date, Perth Amboy has had more than 10,700 residents test positive since the start of the pandemic, a figure city officials say amounts to more than 1 out of every 5 people, and 220 have died — which also makes for Middlesex County's highest death rate per capita.

Not only that, but once vaccine eligibility started to open up, the pace of people in Perth Amboy lining up to get their shots remained startlingly slow.

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'Our approach wasn't to be overbearing'

Mayor Helmin Caba said he knew things needed to speed up. So with the help of county and state agencies, he assembled a task force uniting law enforcement, hospitals, pharmacies, and other stakeholders, to make direct appeals to residents to get vaccinated.

Through November, those efforts have succeeded to a tremendous degree: Perth Amboy now reports a municipal vaccination rate of 88%.

Lisett Lebron, the mayor's chief of staff, said the strategy was to meet people where they're at, one-on-one, and explain things in uncomplicated ways.

"Our approach wasn't to be overbearing," Lebron said. "Our approach was to (say), 'Here, these are opportunities to get vaccinated, or to learn more.'"

'Many times, there's maybe a mistrust in government, mistrust of what is the vaccination'

In such a diverse community, according to Larry Cattano, acting police chief and director of the city office of emergency management, inherent healthcare inequities can provide unique obstacles in a health emergency, which complicated things at first.

"Many times, there's maybe a mistrust in government, mistrust of what is the vaccination, as we've seen all over the country," Cattano said. "So to get that word out, it required coupling with many, many partners, including our religious organizations."

Some of those churches and other houses of worship, he said, have now even become vaccination sites.

Cattano said that even though law enforcement was involved in communicating with residents, this really was a question of encouragement, not enforcement, a pull rather than a push.

'Instead of talking about mandates, we were talking about education'

Caba agreed, saying that the key was focusing on putting facts out in the open.

"Instead of talking about mandates, we were talking about education, educating the public on the importance of getting vaccinated, and to dispel all the myths that were out there," Caba said.

Now, given the apparent increased emphasis on booster doses with the emergence of the Omicron variant, Caba said he knows the fight is not over, but is confident his city will continue to rise to the challenge.

"Just the scare of where we were at last year really put us, and really bonded all of us, together," he said.

At Raritan Bay Medical Center, Cattano said appointments for boosters, pediatric vaccinations, and even initial adult doses have seen an uptick in recent weeks, indicating that Perth Amboy residents are still buying into the messaging.

Caba said he "absolutely" hopes the vaccine campaign to date, plus the booster effort, will position Perth Amboy as a model for the rest of the state.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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