New Jersey state workers and school employees faced a Monday deadline of getting vaccinated or undergoing regular COVID-19 testing.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said Monday he didn't have data to show vaccination rates in schools or state government. He had announced the requirement for vaccination or testing in August.
Monday also marked the first time since the outbreak began in March 2020 that state workers had begun returning to the office in person, but only in a handful of departments. Those are the Department of Children and Families, the Motor Vehicle Commission and the Department of Labor, the governor said.
More than 76% of the state's vaccine-eligible population has been fully vaccinated in New Jersey, among the highest rates in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It saves everybody, so I would rather work next to someone who is vaccinated than someone who is not. Because in the long run, you're saving yourself and other people," said crossing guard Danielle Matthei.
She speaks from experience: Her husband, Mike, got COVID in January and was on a ventilator for 23 days, and in the hospital for almost three months.
"Medicine saved my husband's life. It's that simple, I watched it with my own two eyes," Matthei said.
Not all are on board with the vaccination plan, however. Hundreds of teachers and state workers rallied outside the Statehouse in Trenton on Monday, calling for Murphy to reconsider the COVID vaccine mandate.
Matthei said she understood skepticism, because she was the same way at one point.
"I was skeptical, I was against vaccination. I didn't know the side effects and I was very hesitant," she admitted.
The death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell — who was fully vaccinated but immuno-compromised while battling cancer — has added to some skeptics' reservations about mandating the COVID vaccine.
"When I heard about Colin Powell and he passed away anyway, fully vaccinated? That kind of hit home," said Lena Russo, of Little Falls, a Passaic County town where 96 percent of teachers and other school-related staff are vaccinated.
At Murphy' daily briefing, Dr. Ed Lifshitz said Powell's death is actually an illustration of why people should get the vaccine.
"It shows you need to get vaccinated, it's not perfect, it's extremely good," Lifshitz said. "Best way is to not let the virus get to them in the first place."
During the final week of September, just two percent of deaths and hospitalizations from COVID in New Jersey were from fully vaccinated people.