Maritza Beniquez, an emergency room nurse who works at the center of New Jersey’s COVID outbreak,  celebrated her 56th birthday with a twist—she became the first person in New Jersey to be given the COVID vaccine. 

"I had to look to check to see if it went in. I didn’t feel it. There's no pain. I feel great," she said on Tuesday. “I’m happy that in another month and half, I won’t have to be afraid.”

Listen to Nancy Solomon's report on WNYC:

Beniquez works at University Hospital in Newark, the only public hospital in New Jersey and one of six that received a shipment of the Pfizer vaccine this week. (A total of 76,050 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are arriving in the state this week, with another 86,000 expected next week.) The state is prioritizing health care workers at risk of coming into contact with the virus and nursing homes. 

University Hospital has set up rows of small stations behind curtains, creating an assembly line so that it can vaccinate 600 health people a day. Everyone receiving the Pfizer vaccine will get a second dose 21 days later.

Governor Phil Murphy and a group of state and local officials watched the first vaccinations—which included the dean of Rutgers’ two medical schools, Dr. Robert Johnson—and the optimism was palpable. 

New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli is a former nurse who once led University Hospital.  For eight months, she has held near daily briefings with the governor, giving sober statistics and speaking in a measured tone. But, on Tuesday, Persichilli looked as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. 

“It’s great to be back at University Hospital,” she said with a big smile. “It is great. This is a historic day.”

As hopeful as New Jersey officials are, they continue to warn that the arrival of vaccines does nothing in the short term to stop the rising number of COVID infections. The state reported 4,111 new cases on Tuesday and its positivity rate is 11.8%.  It is only mask wearing and social distancing that can bring that rate down in the short term, Persichilli said. 

She and Governor Murphy say they’re eager to take the vaccine, but for now, they have reserved the first doses for health care workers at risk of getting COVID.