It’s been four weeks since New Jersey administered its first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
While state officials have expressed disappointment that we’ve received fewer doses than initially expected, overall, they said they think the effort is going well.
Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday that the state could administer more doses if the federal government would send more.
“We don’t have the supply from the feds that we need, there’s no doubt about that,” Murphy said at the opening of the state’s first vaccination mega-site. “Within the context of a large supply-demand imbalance, I like everything we’re doing inside of the state to get prepared and things like today but they don’t have the doses they ultimately could use at full capacity.”
Federal distribution could change after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. He said on Friday that he would release all vaccine doses rather than hold back half of the supply to make sure second doses are available in a reversal of current policy, CNN reported Friday.
As of Friday, the state has received 572,250 doses and it has administered 156,021 first doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And earlier this week, the state started to administer second doses to frontline healthcare workers who already received their first dose.
Murphy said that while the data makes it look like there are vaccines sitting on the shelf, that’s incorrect. Part of the problem, he said, is there are lags in reporting in some cases. In other cases, he said, vaccines are earmarked for administration but it just hasn’t happened yet.
“For instance, CVS and Walgreens are dealing with long-term care facilities that they’re going to be going through in January and February, so it looks like (vaccines) are not being used but there’s a plan explicitly for them to get that out,” he said. “CVS, Walgreens, know what they’re going to do over the next four to eight weeks. It may look like they’re sitting on a shelf but in fact they are dedicated to a particular game plan that’s been laid out.”
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Not everyone is as confident as the governor.
“So far the vaccination effort is going far too slowly,” said Stephanie Navarro Silvera, a public health professor at Montclair State University.
Citing the CDC vaccination numbers, she said less than 2% of New Jersey’s population has been vaccinated.
Part of the reason the numbers are so low is because there are a finite number of people included in Phase 1a, said Dr. Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health.
“The vaccine became available very quickly, very suddenly, and while states had given some thought to the actual rollout, they didn’t have a chance to beta test and try out those plans,” said Dr. Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health. “We are rolling it out and learning at the same time.”
“I believe deeply that the vaccine was rolled out at a particularly bad time of year when people were engaged with holidays and their families and put the vaccine on the back burner,” he said.
Navarro Silvera agreed that some of the delays could have been because of the recent holidays, but, she said, there is still too much hesitancy about taking the vaccine.
“We know that misinformation and disinformation has been a significant barrier during this pandemic and the vaccine is not, no pun intended, immune to the infodemic,” Navarro Silvera said. “We need a strong, well-planned public health education campaign to push back on misinformation that could erode confidence in vaccination.”
EXPANDED VACCINATION SITES
As of Friday, the state had more than 100 vaccination sites, including two of six new mega-sites that opened on Friday.
There are currently locations in 20 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, with Salem being the only county without a vaccine location.
Even with expanding locations, Navarro Silvera said she’s concerned about access for underserved communities.
She said she’d like to see expanded vaccine administration hours to ensure that “those who do not have access to paid leave and who cannot afford to take time off to be vaccinated” won’t face any barriers to vaccination. “This will include a large proportion of our non-healthcare essential workers who are employed in lower-wage, hourly positions, which simultaneously puts them at greater risk for contracting and, due to the social determinants of health, dying from COVID-19,” she said.
She said the state needs to consider factors such as the location of vaccine programs, the times that the vaccine is offered, and be sure to make it clear to those without insurance that they can be vaccinated for free.
Halkitis said there need to be strategies in place to bring the vaccine to people.
“Just like the pharmacies are bringing vaccines to the nursing homes, we’ve got to bring it to people,” he said.
He said he’d love to see the state host large health fairs where people could not only get the vaccine, but could also check their blood pressure or speak to a nutritionist.
“We tend to forget that people have fears and anxiety about health issues and it’s often an impediment to seeking out care,” Halkitis said. “We should do what we can do to make it more friendly.”
Halkitis said while politicians and doctors have taken the vaccine in public, many people trust entertainers more than politicians and doctors. So, he said, the state should have more role models publicizing the vaccine.
“A Beyoncé. We need the Elvis Presley ‘I’m getting my polio vaccine’ approach because that’s what’s going to normalize it for people,” he said. “Maybe if a Kardashian did it?”
PRE-REGISTRATION FOR THE VACCINE
The state is trying to streamline the vaccination sign-up process with a new pre-registration tool.
When you visit the site, it will ask for your personal and insurance information, the type of work you do and if you have any of 19 medical conditions that would put you at higher risk if you contracted the virus.
As more vaccine doses become available, users will receive a follow-up email when they are eligible for a vaccine. They will be directed to a link that will give drop down menus where users can choose from vaccination sites and set up an appointment, the state said.
When the site first went live, there were slowdowns and glitches because of huge volume. The state then asked for only health care workers to sign up at this time, even though the site remains open for anyone.
After some users said the system put them in the wrong phase for the vaccination or that some of the information recorded for them was incorrect, the state added a feedback form where people could report any issues.
Navarro Silvera said the state could do a better job in getting the word out about the registration system.
“We need clearer messaging about how to pre-register for the vaccine and trained public health professionals to help those who are less skilled at navigating online registration systems,” she said. “As with everything with this pandemic, clear public health communication will be key and ensuring that the most vulnerable among us are not shut out of the vaccination program will be one of the biggest obstacles that we must commit to overcoming.”
Before this week, only health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, part of Phase 1a, were able to get the vaccine.
But on Thursday, vaccines were opened up to sworn law enforcement officers and fire personnel, the first group of people in Phase 1b to get the shots.
The 1b group also includes other first responders, food service workers, educators, support staff and daycare workers, public transit workers and workers who support radio, print, internet and television news and media services, according to the state’s updated 188-page vaccination plan released in December. Other “critical” and “essential” workers are also included in 1b, the plan said, along with adults ages 75 and older.
The following phase, 1c, will include people between the ages of 16 and 64 with high-risk conditions and other adults aged 65 to 75, according to the state plan. It would also include “people living or working in congregate or overcrowded settings” such as colleges and universities, migrant workers and tribal populations, who were listed by an earlier version of the plan as in the 1b category, the plan said.
After those groups, other members of the public will be eligible to get their doses. That’s expected to be in April or May.
When asked on Friday whether New Jersey will meet its goal of vaccinating 70% of the population, or 4.7 million people, by the end of May, Gov. Murphy sidestepped the question.
“This is going to take some time,” he said.
NJ Advance Media reporters Matt Arco contributed to this report.
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Karin Price Mueller may be reached at KPriceMueller@NJAdvanceMedia.com.