New Jersey’s coronavirus vaccine program appeared to get off to a good start last week, with more than 2,000 high-risk health care workers immunized at hospitals around the state.
But New Jersey leaders raised concerns Friday that the state could receive roughly 130,000 fewer doses of the COVID-19 vaccines over the next two weeks than initially expected, due to unexplained changes in the federal government’s shipping plan.
According to state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, this includes a potential 38% decline in a delivery Pfizer was slated to ship this week, destined to serve as the second of two shots for individuals vaccinated early in the process; a one-third drop in the total Pfizer immunizations destined for New Jersey this month; and a 20% decline overall in what the state was supposed to receive by year’s end from both Pfizer and Moderna, whose product was preapproved last week.
While it is not clear how this reduction could impact the state’s immunization plans overall, Gov. Phil Murphy said his team would continue to press federal officials for an explanation over the weekend. Murphy is also scheduled to conduct a call with White House leaders Monday.
Expanding vaccine infrastructure
Regardless of any supply chain changes, New Jersey is proceeding with plans to expand its vaccine clinic infrastructure over the coming months. The strategy calls for six “megasites” to open at malls, colleges and convention centers around the state in early January. In addition, the state is working to stand up more than 200 smaller immunization stations at hospitals, community clinics, urgent care centers and chain drug stores, officials said Friday.
“Suffice it to say, as each successive group of New Jerseyans becomes eligible to be vaccinated,” Murphy said, “we will have the infrastructure in place to administer to every resident in those groups who wishes to be vaccinated.”
New Jersey’s goal is to vaccinate 70% of the state’s eligible population, about 4.7 million people. That means widespread immunity may not be achieved before fall 2021.
“Yes, that is aggressive, and yes that is aspirational, but that is what we need to do so that the virus has no place to go,” Persichilli said of this goal Friday. The state Department of Health will let people know how and where they can sign up for immunizations as the plan is phased in over the coming months, she said, with the timing depending on supply of vaccines.
New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccine campaign kicked off Tuesday at University Hospital in Newark, where nurse Maritza Beniquez was the first person in the state to be immunized against the virus that has infected close to 425,000 state residents and killed at least 18,000. Nearly 45,000 have been hospitalized here since March, and the pressure on health care facilities has escalated rapidly in recent weeks.
Focus on at-risk health care, nursing homes
The state’s plan calls for health care workers most at risk for infection to be the first to have access to the vaccine, along with residents and staff at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Health care workers began the inoculation process — which calls for two shots, several weeks apart — at hospitals around the state last week. State officials expected 47 facilities to have vaccines on hand by Friday.
While those in long-term care are technically part of this same priority group, immunizations at these sites won’t begin until the week of Dec. 28, Persichilli said Friday. The process depends on a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens that appears to leave many of the details up to individual nursing homes, and Persichilli said a missed deadline for certain paperwork resulted in an extra week’s delay.
Persichilli said additional community-based vaccine sites would soon be open for priority health care workers — paid and unpaid, from a variety of settings — and the DOH will share information this week on the locations, hours of operation and sign-up process; some will allow for walk-in service, as well.
“As I have reported in the past, we expect that demand will outpace the supply. So, we will need to initiate vaccine sites in phases to ensure equitable distribution,” Persichilli said.
Other essential workers
Eventually, as more vaccines become available, Persichilli said immunizations will be made available to essential frontline workers from various industries, considered the 1b category. Details on who is defined as essential have yet to be announced, but it could include transit workers, food handlers, grocery clerks and delivery personnel. That will be followed by the 1c group, residents over age 65 or with preexisting health conditions, and eventually by the public at large.
Former state epidemiologist Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, who leads a DOH advisory group, said this panel would be meeting over the weekend to finalize some of the details concerning the 1b and 1c groups. The advisory group has also been tasked with reviewing the federal findings on vaccine safety and efficacy, including information related to the Moderna vaccine that received preliminary approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week.
“There have been no corners that have been cut” on the review process with either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine, Bresnitz said Friday. “There’s a lot of independent people who, the only skin they have in the game is to ensure these vaccines have efficacy and have a favorable safety profile and ultimately make sure people have confidence in the vaccine and make sure they get the vaccine. And that’s the next challenge,” he said.