By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Megan Santiago approached Nancy Whelan and Mary Anne Clark while they were taking a walk Thursday morning on Sea Isle City’s Promenade and handed them a blue tote bag containing a few items that could help save their lives as well as other people.
Inside the bag were a protective mask, a container of hand sanitizer and an educational brochure titled “Coronavirus (COVID-19).”
Whelan and Clark, who are friends, warmly thanked Santiago, but it was clear that they were already serious about protecting themselves from a virus that has killed more than 100,000 Americans nationwide and 47 residents in Cape May County during the global pandemic
They were carrying their own face masks and put them on as soon as Santiago came close to them to give them a tote bag.
“If there are people around, we wear these masks,” said Clark, 71, a Sea Isle resident.
Santiago, a health educator for the Cape May County Department of Health, is part of a public outreach and educational program called “Six Feet Saves,” a reference to the minimum distance that people should maintain between themselves and strangers to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Whelan, 72, who lives in Sea Isle, stressed that she is well aware of the dangers of the coronavirus. Her 40-year-old daughter, Mary Ellen Burfete, of Manhattan, was infected with COVID-19, but has since recovered.
“She’s fine now, thank God,” Whelan said.
Whelan noted that her daughter is donating plasma containing antibodies to fight COVID-19 infections.
“Hopefully to God that will help save someone else. I’m proud of her,” Whelan said.
In the meantime, Whelan and Clark said they “absolutely love” the efforts of the Cape May County Department of Health to educate the public about safeguards to follow during the pandemic, including wearing a mask.
“There are people who just don’t get it,” Whelan said of the importance of wearing a mask.
“It’s not a political statement,” Clark added.
Officials from the county health department and 25 specially trained volunteers from the Medical Reserve Corps, an organization that includes healthcare professionals and nonprofessionals, have assumed the role of “Social Distancing Ambassadors” in an educational campaign about the lethal pathogen.
The campaign includes stops in high-traffic areas in Cape May County shore towns, such as the boardwalks, to distribute coronavirus literature and remind people of the steps they can take to protect themselves and others.
“We’ve been getting very positive feedback from people,” Santiago said. “We’re just reminding them. We’re not enforcing anything. It’s just an educational program about the importance of social distancing and wearing a mask if you can’t maintain six feet apart from other people.”
A schedule of the “Six Feet Saves” stops for each town can be found at https://www.facebook.com/CapeMayCountyDepartmentofHealth.
Cape May County’s program is modeled after a similar public safety campaign developed by the University of Rochester in New York. The county health department and the Cape May County Board of Freeholders wanted to launch the program at this time of year because of the influx of visitors coming to the Jersey Shore for the start of the summer tourism season.
“We don’t know who is positive. They could be a carrier and not have any symptoms,” Santiago said.
According to the latest figures, Cape May County has had 616 confirmed coronavirus cases. Of those, 277 residents have since recovered and are off quarantine. Of the county’s 47 coronavirus deaths, 37 have been residents of long-term care facilities.
Both Santiago and Liberty Kocis, a health educator and risk communicator for the county health department, stressed that it is important to continue maintaining social distancing while the shore’s economy begins to gradually emerge from the coronavirus shutdown.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Santiago said.
Kocis was joined by Medical Reserve Corps volunteer Eleanor Forte while handing out tote bags containing masks, hand sanitizer and educational literature on Sea Isle’s oceanfront Promenade.
“We walked up to the end of the Promenade. Almost every single person accepted a bag and said ‘Thank you.’ They were receptive,” Kocis said.
At one point, a man offered to make a cash donation after he was given a tote bag. Kocis and Santiago politely declined while telling him that donations are not being accepted.