A confusing, disconnected sign-up system for the COVID-19 vaccine. Appointments that vanish in an instant. Anxiety and confusion over the process and timeline at nursing homes.
Gov. Phil Murphy insists he hears these concerns and understands the public frustration with the current pace of New Jersey’s immunization program. The problem is the federal government, Murphy said again last week, which failed to supply enough doses to the state or expedite the vaccine rollout in long-term care facilities.
“We completely get it, we completely understand the anxiety of so many residents who are waiting to be vaccinated,” Murphy said during a regular media briefing Friday. “But I cannot be any clearer — we built a vaccine infrastructure that can handle this job. We need the doses.”
More than 500,000 New Jerseyans had received at least one of the two shots needed to be fully protected from COVID-19, Murphy said. The virus has infected some 650,400 residents since March, including more than 20,800 who have died as a result.
Nearly 2 million residents have signed up to be immunized through the state’s online portal, which is designed to direct users — once they become eligible — to the websites for vaccine clinics near their home. Residents can then use those websites to try to make an appointment. The state is seeking to inoculate at least 4.7 million people within six months to achieve a safe level of immunity.
New telephone hotline
To help smooth the process, New Jersey plans on Monday to launch a free telephone hotline with live operators to answer questions in multiple languages and help people sign up. The call center — at 855-568-0545 — is slated to be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.
“Please understand we have got good, trained, hardworking folks doing everything they can,” Murphy said, urging people to be patient with the process. “And please remember this is a huge supply-demand imbalance, in every respect.”
Murphy expressed growing frustration himself last week over the pace of immunizations at New Jersey’s nursing homes and other congregate living facilities, which house some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. The state opted to enroll some 1,500 facilities in a federal program that contracted with drug chains CVS and Walgreens to coordinate and run coronavirus vaccine clinics for more than 200,000 residents and staff.
Of the more than 1 million vaccine doses New Jersey has been supplied by federal officials since December, more than 450,000 were dedicated for use in the CVS-Walgreens program, according to state Department of Health communications director Donna Leusner. Of these, she said barely 65,600 had been administered at nursing homes, assisted living or other facilities as of last week — less than 15% of the total allotment.
Complained about Walgreens
While he initially praised this process, Murphy complained last week that these drug chains, Walgreens in particular, were not moving fast enough. He said he had a call planned with Walgreens officials Friday afternoon to urge them to get “more aggressive” with the rollout. The governor declined to say if the state has other power to influence the process, which is determined by a contract struck under the former Trump administration, but he repeatedly stressed that New Jersey doesn’t control the process.
“The good news is your grandmother’s nursing home is scheduled (to hold a vaccine clinic), but it might not be scheduled before Feb. 25th,” Murphy said. “It ought to be scheduled before Jan. 25th. They need to put more urgency and more manpower into this.”
Both CVS and Walgreens rejected the suggestion they were not performing on par, noting they were on track to meet the deadlines outlined in the federal agreement. Priority was given to the state’s 370 nursing homes and all should have had at least one vaccine clinic by Monday, according to the companies. But immunization at the remaining 1,100-plus assisted living facilities, group homes and other congregate settings is expected to take several weeks longer.
According to public data posted Friday by CVS and Walgreens, the drug stores have vaccinated 64,400 and 21,700 people in New Jersey, respectively, or more than 86,100 long-term care residents in total. Using this figure, it appears 19% of the vaccine supply set aside for these groups had been used.
“We are also escalating vaccinations at assisted living facilities in the state. Walgreens will continue to cooperate with state officials to ensure those eligible are vaccinated in the quickest and safest manner,” Walgreens senior director of external relations Fraser Engerman said Friday. “We are confident we can support the roll out of these vaccines and are working with states almost daily to support their specific needs as they evolve,” he said.
The vaccine rollout has worked well at Broadway House for Continuing Care, in Newark, according to president Jim Gonzales. Two of the three clinics scheduled by Walgreens have been held and about 130 residents and staff have had at least one shot, he said, with a third and final clinic scheduled for Feb. 3.
While there was some hesitancy among staff at first, Gonzales said interest in getting vaccinated had picked up as the process unfurled. “If we had more dates that would be great,” he said, noting there may be some individuals who get a first shot on Feb.3 who will need to secure a second dose elsewhere. “That’s going to be a huge challenge,” he said.
NJ has no plans to divert supplies
Shortages in supplies of vaccine have prompted some states, including New York, to consider diverting vaccines set aside for the booster, or second shot, for initial doses in order to expand coverage among priority groups. Leusner, at the Department of Health, said this is not something New Jersey is currently considering, but it could change if increased federal supplies are not delivered — or people don’t claim second doses on schedule.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines approved for emergency use involve two shots several weeks apart; roughly 350,000 of the 1 million doses New Jersey has been allocated are designated as second shots, which were shipped directly to vaccine sites on a schedule. “The first and the second should not be in competition,” Murphy said.
By Friday, some 130 county and local vaccine sites had been set up in New Jersey and six state-run mega-sites designed to immunize thousands of people daily; few of these facilities are operating at full capacity.
“There are currently many more people seeking vaccines and eligible to be vaccinated than there are appointments available across the state,” Persichilli said Friday. “Our hope is that when the national supply chain increases and new vaccines receive (federal) emergency use authorization, the supply will start to support the demand.”