First COVID-19 vaccines arrive, state warns most will wait months to get shots

Initial doses are meant for health care workers, long-term care workers and residents
Credit: (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
File photo: New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccination programs begins Tuesday, Dec. 15. New York’s began Dec. 14. Pharmacists arrived with the vaccine at NYU-Langone Hospital on Monday.

With several New Jersey hospitals on Tuesday slated to begin vaccinating health care workers against COVID-19 and more than 300,000 more doses anticipated in the weeks to come, the state is poised to enter a new and potentially more effective phase in its battle against the deadly coronavirus.

But these early shipments provide only the first of two shots needed to protect just over half of the group designated the highest priority — some 650,000 paid and unpaid health care workers and 75,000 long-term care residents. New Jersey officials stressed it will be months still before the vaccine is available to the general public and almost a year before we reach so-called herd immunity, at which point enough people are vaccinated to properly control the spread of the virus.

“This is a start, but it’s just the first few drops in a really big bucket,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a media briefing Monday, the day before New Jersey launched its largest-ever vaccination campaign. Tuesday is “a big day, but we cannot claim any victory yet. [It] is the just the establishment of our beachhead. It’s going to take several more months of fighting,” he added.

Since March, more than 405,000 New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to state figures, and almost 44,000 hospitalized as a result. The virus has also been associated with roughly 17,800 fatalities — close to one death for every 500 state residents.

No letup in precautions

Murphy, Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli and other health leaders plan to visit the coronavirus vaccine clinic at Newark’s University Hospital Tuesday morning, one of at least two facilities — along with Hackensack University Medical Center — slated to start immunizing employees most at risk for infection. Persichilli called the first inoculation “a moment in history” but underscored the need to continue with other public health protocols for the weeks and months to come.

State officials said four other hospitals are expected to launch similar initiatives in the coming days, once they receive COVID-19 vaccine shipments from drugmaker Pfizer, which obtained federal clearance over the weekend for emergency use of the product. These sites include: AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, in Atlantic City; Cooper University Hospital, in Camden; Morristown Medical Center, in Morristown; and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, in New Brunswick.

These hospital programs will benefit from the bulk of the first tranche of 76,000 Pfizer vaccines set to arrive in New Jersey this week. On Monday, Persichilli said that roughly 20,000 doses of this first tranche would be shipped to CVS and Walgreens under a partnership that tasks the chain drugstores with immunizing residents and staff of long-term care facilities. These vaccinations are also slated to begin in the coming days, according to state officials.

Persichilli said another 86,000 doses of the Pfizer product are expected to arrive next week, with a third shipment to follow before the end of December; these are destined for 53 acute care hospitals across the state.

The remaining 18 hospitals are slated to receive vaccines made by Moderna — which could receive federal emergency authorization later this week — with 154,000 doses anticipated in the first tranche and 65,000 more in a second shipment, she said.

Two shots needed, three weeks apart

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots, at least three weeks apart. The DOH has said that federal authorities are encouraging the state to use the entire first shipment of 76,000 Pfizer vaccines for initial shots and are holding second doses for these individuals in reserve. Eventually, the state hopes to vaccinate 70% of the state’s eligible population within six months of widespread vaccine availability, or about 4.7 million people, which the governor said would be sufficient for herd immunity.

“Our hopes are, for timing, that as one group of vaccine recipients receives their second dose, a new tranche of recipients will be receiving their first,” Murphy said. “This overlap will allow us to ensure our vaccine progress.”

Murphy noted it is too soon to say exactly how and when immunization programs will open up to the second priority group, which includes frontline workers, individuals with underlying health conditions or independent residents over age 65. While plans for the “1a group” of health care workers and long-term care residents is “very clear,” Murphy said Monday the process of vaccinating the much larger, more complex “1b group” remains “a work in progress.” A third group covers the remaining population.

“You throw a stone in the water and you start to see the ripples and the waves go out from there, slowly but surely,” Murphy said of the vaccine rollout. He predicted that Easter — on April 4 — would mark “the front end of a much better, much more open period of time, God willing,” when the outbreak has peaked, vaccines are widely available, and warmer weather means people can return to outdoor activities, which are less conducive to spreading infection.

Various predictive models developed by the state indicated that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations would peak in late December or mid-January, depending on the metrics, state officials revealed last week. All the models also indicate vaccines will have limited impact in controlling the virus before March, when more widespread immunization is expected.

Persichilli: ‘We still have a tough winter ahead’

“As Gov. Murphy said last week, we are now in the opening scenes of the end of this pandemic,” Persichilli said Monday. “We can begin to feel more optimistic that the end is coming but we still have a tough winter ahead of us,” she continued, encouraging people to wear masks, remain distant, stay home when sick and take other precautions.

“We need to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Persichilli said. “More positive cases mean more hospitalizations. More hospitalizations mean more stress on the health care system that we’re relying on to stay strong throughout this second wave. And yes, more hospitalizations may lead to more deaths.”