It was in January last year that most of us first began hearing the term COVID-19 on the news.

Back then it wasn’t yet a global crisis. It was something scary happening in China. The lockdown orders and mask-wearing was on the other side of the world.

But in the back of everyone’s mind was this worrying thought: could it happen here?

We all know the answer. By February the virus had spread across Asia, the Pacific and Europe. Come March, it was here.

Two of New Jersey’s first positive cases were residents of Burlington County. That was on March 10th.

During the last year, we’ve seen more than 31,000 Burlington County residents become infected. To date, 710 of them have died from COVID-19.

These are not just abstract numbers. These are our family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Each death is a tragedy. Each is a reminder of what’s at stake in our ongoing fight.

We’ve come a long way in the last year. Together, we’ve suffered a lot of heartbreak and a lot of pain. We’ve lost loved ones to this disease. We suffered financial losses. We’ve endured tremendous amounts of stress and anxiety.

But, we’ve learned a lot, too. We’ve learned that our communities remain strong, resilient and compassionate. Stories of neighbors assisting families in quarantine, drive-by birthday parades and donations to local food drives, provide welcome reminders of our capacity to care for one another.

We’ve gained a new appreciation of our health care systems and the doctors, nurses, paramedics and other essential heroes on the frontlines of this crisis: the supermarket and warehouse workers, pharmacists, delivery drivers, and, yes, our teachers. They have all overcome enormous challenges and performed amazing feats.

I also put government among the many things we appreciate more now. Since the start of this crisis, I’ve seen how important all levels of government are to our people and our communities.

From setting up COVID-19 testing to PPE distribution and free food days, Burlington County has made it our number one mission to help our residents through this crisis.

Every department of our county government has been impacted and every department has been involved in our response -- from Human Services and Public Works to Public Safety and Parks -- but especially our Health Department. Since the pandemic’s start, Dr. Herb Conaway and his team have been at the center of virtually all our government’s actions, and I can’t say enough about the job they have done for our residents. Testing. Vaccines. Contact tracing. These have been life-saving services.

We’ve delivered assistance. We’ve carried on. We’ve overcome. And we’ve found ways to do it without overburdening our residents.

Thankfully, we have not had to do it alone. Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration have provided our county and our residents with an enormous amount of assistance: Financial help for testing and equipment, funding for rental assistance and supplies for our first responders and long-term care facilities.

Governor Murphy has been there for us through every single day of this pandemic. His leadership, compassion and determination have helped this state through some of its darkest days.

The same can be said of Burlington County’s representatives to the New Jersey Legislature and in Congress who have been our voice in Trenton and Washington D.C. and worked tirelessly to ensure we have resources to serve our residents.

Their work has been critical to our County’s pandemic response. Just last week we saw the U.S. House of Representatives pass a new COVID-19 relief package that includes direct payments to working families, enhanced unemployment support and important state and local aid to help us continue to provide our residents with the support and services they need.

One of my biggest takeaways from the last year is that it takes all levels of government working together with businesses, nonprofits and our own residents to respond to a crisis like COVID-19.

We are stronger when we work together.

The Burlington County Vaccine Mega-site at the Moorestown Mall is a fantastic example. A few months ago, it was just an empty space. Together, with the State of New Jersey, New Jersey National Guard and Virtua Health, we’ve remade it into a fully operational site where thousands of people come daily to get vaccinated.

Already more than 80,000 people have been vaccinated there and the number grows by the thousands every day.

Vaccines offer a tremendous amount of hope for our residents. They signal a coming end to COVID-19 and all the pain and hardship we have endured.

We’re not there yet, but the end is coming. We’re asking our residents to remain patient and resilient. Continue to mask up. Continue to social-distance and wash your hands. Keep enduring.

We’ve come so far already. Please remain vigilant and strong. We’re almost there and we will make it to the end. Together.

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