In the past two weeks, Cicchetti and his partner, Shirley Limburg, 59, have given at least a dozen rides to residents unable to get to appointments on their own. The service, which launched at the beginning of the month and was first reported by NJ.com, is free and mainly funded by the couple, Cicchetti and Limburg told The Washington Post.
Their motto is simple: “Help stop covid-19. One ride, one shot at a time.”
“Any one person who gets vaccinated and has immunity and doesn’t spread it, that’s a lot of lives saved,” Limburg told The Post.
The retired couple is part of a network of informal volunteers across the nation who have stepped in to help strangers secure vaccines amid a rollout process that has, at times, been bumpy, competitive and confusing.
In Chicago, a 14-year-old high school student has spent his evenings glued to a laptop, helping strangers secure open vaccination slots. In Maryland, a group of teachers found time in between classes to schedule appointments for others. Thousands of physicians and non-medically trained people volunteered at vaccination sites.
Securing an appointment hasn’t been the only challenge. In many parts of the country, older adults and people of color, who are at higher risk of becoming infected, don’t have cars, don’t drive or don’t live near public transportation, making it hard to get to vaccination sites, The Post reported.
When the pandemic arrived in New Jersey last year and Cicchetti’s friends began contracting the virus, including one who later died of covid-19, he knew he wanted to help. For Cicchetti, who lost his brother to a disease related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks years ago, saving as many lives with the smallest of gestures was personal.
“If I can even prevent one person from not going through what my family went through with losing my brother, I’d call it a success,” Cicchetti said.
So last spring, the couple, who has lived in Bloomsbury, N.J., for the past 12 years, purchased a used black Fiat to pick up prescriptions or groceries for relatives. But with the rise of home-delivery services, Limburg said, many ended up not needing their help and for months, the car did not really have a purpose.
Until late December, when U.S. officials approved the first coronavirus vaccines. That’s when Cicchetti had an idea: What if he turned the hatchback into a covid-19 mobile that could take people unable to get to their vaccine appointments free of charge?
Cicchetti spent months in his garage gluing dryer balls to PVC pipes, spray-painting them and then adhering them to his car’s hood and roof. The couple initially intended to call the service “Joe’s Corona Car” but Facebook wouldn’t let them use the name, they said. Instead, they went with “Joe’s Covee Car” because Limburg’s daughter, who is a nurse at a covid-19 ward, mentioned many of her colleagues informally referred to the virus as “covee.”
After setting up their Facebook page last month, it quickly became clear neighbors needed the help.
“If you don’t have a car in Hunterdon County, it’s really difficult to get to a vaccine appointment,” Cicchetti said. “How are these people going to get their shots?”
Once the couple was fully vaccinated earlier this month, they took “Joe’s Covee Car” to the streets. Anyone who lives in their county or a neighboring one can contact them via Facebook, phone or email. “As long as one of us is available, we will pick them up,” Limburg said.
To keep everyone safe, they only allow one passenger, require masks and check temperatures. They have received calls from all over the state and had to turn down some requests because the riders live too far away. But Cicchetti said many callers have more general questions, like whether the vaccine is safe.
“That’s really a big question. I cannot tell you how many times a day the question comes up,” he said.
For Limburg, who was left impaired of hearing in one ear after contracting mumps when she was a child before a vaccine was available, vaccine hesitancy pushes her to keep the volunteer services running.
The couple is already in conversation to expand the service to other parts of the state with the help of drivers who are fully vaccinated, have a clean driving record and meet all coronavirus safety guidelines, they said. Prompted by requests to donate to the cause, the couple has also created a Facebook page to cover some expenses.
“We are not rich people by far,” Cicchetti said. “We are doing something that makes a difference. Yeah, money is important, but people’s lives are really important. If we can do something like this on a very limited budget, anyone can do it.”