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He used to organize big basketball tournaments in this gym. Now he's organizing a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.
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He used to organize big basketball tournaments in this gym. Now he's organizing a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

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TOMS RIVER — Mukesh Roy walks into RWJBarnabas Health Arena these days and can’t help but imagine the dribbling of basketballs and the squeak of sneakers on the court.

Just a year ago, the Mays Landing doctor and his brother Pryia brought some of the nation’s top high school basketball talent to the arena for the Metro Classic showcase event.

The 3,208-seat facility serves a different purpose now.

It’s home to a COVID-19 vaccination clinic.

At the Metro Classic last year, Roy watched as Taj Thweatt of Wildwood Catholic High School wowed the crowd with high-flying dunks and D.J. Wagner of Camden drew roars with long-range 3-pointers. Nowadays, the arena is mostly quiet except for some easy listening music and Roy deals with questions, such as should someone with allergies receive the vaccine. Roy is a doctor and director of emergency preparedness and response for the Ocean County Health Department.

“Every day I’m going into the arena, and I’m getting (basketball) flashbacks,” said Roy, 54. “Here’s the Metro Classic where you have all the players doing their thing in the arena. Now, I’m doing my thing with vaccinations.”

The arena’s use tells the story of what life was like before the pandemic and what it is like now.

“It gives you a weary sort of sense of what this whole last year was like,” Roy said.

The Metro Classic ran on weekends in January and February at the arena last year. Pryia, of Flemington, Hunterdon County, is deputy counsel with the Department of Homeland Security. He often jokes that he and Mukesh are not your typical basketball guys.

But they do have a passion for the game.

The brothers grew up in Rahway and Scotch Plains in Union County and played high school basketball. Through their professions and enthusiasm for basketball, they somehow seem to know just about everyone in every gym they walk into. Through the years, the Roys watched and attended plenty of games and developed a friendship with former Patrick School coach Kevin Boyle, who now coaches national power Montverde Academy in Florida. When Boyle got the Montverde job, he still wanted to play some New Jersey teams. The brothers started the Metro Classic in 2013, partly to give him that opportunity and to raise money for charity.

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The Mainland Regional and Wildwood Catholic boys basketball teams participated in last year’s Classic. Some of the contests were shown nationally on ESPN3. The event was one of last season’s highlights, but a few weeks later, the coronavirus shut down the sports world.

Roy has been involved in fighting COVID-19 from the start. The Ocean County Health Department has conducted more than 20,000 COVID-19 tests since March and ran one of the state’s largest testing sites at Ocean County College in Toms River.

“For my office, it has really been exhausting,” Roy said. “We have never had to do this amount of work. It’s constant.”

The vaccination clinic at the arena began Dec. 29 and so far has averaged about 300 vaccinations per day. Vaccinations are currently limited to people in Phase 1A, which consists primarily of health care workers and long-term care facility residents.

“This is not a sprint,” Roy said. “It’s a marathon.”

Daniel Regenye, public health coordinator for the Ocean County Health Department, said eventually the arena site could give between 1,500 and 2,000 vaccinations per day.

“There will be plenty of opportunity as long as we get vaccine,” Regenye said. “We are in Phase 1A, but we’re already planning for the 1B, the 1C and the 2.”

The Ocean County Health Department currently employs a staff of 25 to 30 people, plus some volunteers, at the arena each day. The county Sheriff’s Department provides security.

The process for vaccines at the arena ran smoothly Thursday afternoon. People who had made appointments on the department website had their information checked in the hallway next to the box office where Roy last year sold tickets for the Metro Classic.

Once inside, the patients followed the yellow X marks on the floor past the arena concession stand into the gym, where doctors and nurses at seven stations administered the shots.

Once they got the shot, patients sat in the stands at the far end of the gym for 15 minutes just to make sure there were no complications. The whole process for each patient took less than an hour.

Roy said the vaccine is the key to the arena returning to its original purpose of games and concerts. He noted the goal is to vaccinate 70% of the state’s population, then vaccinated people could be allowed to attend indoor and outdoor sporting events.

“There’s a lot of controversy about vaccines,” Roy said. “What’s the best opportunity to promote vaccines? Sports has an opportunity to become a vaccination place, become a testing place, generate excitement. Give a carrot to people and say, ‘Listen, if you get vaccinated, you can watch the Knicks.’ We have to learn to live with this virus. We need to get that 70% to 80% vaccination rate.”

Contact: 609-272-7209

MMcGarry@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressMcGarry

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