NJ looks to retired medical professionals to speed pace of COVID-19 vaccinations

Doctors, nurses, paramedics and others who go back on active duty can help protect frontline workers against COVID-19 and give vaccination efforts a shot in the arm
Credit: (Kirsten Luce/The New York Times via AP, Pool)
RN Maritza Beniquez receives a COVID-19 vaccination at Newark’s University Hospital. Retired medical professionals are being asked to step in and protect frontline workers and speed vaccinations.

As New Jersey prepares to establish its first vaccine “megasites” this week, state officials are looking for retired medical professionals to help administer COVID-19 immunizations to fellow health care workers at risk for infection.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that 100,000 New Jerseyans have been vaccinated so far through the state’s program, which began Dec. 15 at select hospitals and two weeks later at nursing homes under a federal partnership with pharmacy giants CVS and Walgreens.

As of last week, the state had received some 400,000 doses from vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna, officials said, 120,000 of which are slated for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Eventually the state hopes to immunize 4.7 million people, a process that could last well into the fall.

Murphy and state health commissioner Judy Persichilli defended the pace of the rollout, but suggested the process has been complicated by changes in the federal shipping schedule and a limited pool of clinicians available to actually administer the inoculations.

“You’re basically shipping these (vaccines) out and asking the very people at the front lines fighting the pandemic to be the same people to not just get the vaccine, but to administer” the shots, Murphy said Monday during a media briefing.  As a result of the limited staff, few vaccines have been administered over the weekends in New Jersey, he noted.

Persichilli said some 200 sites — hospitals, urgent-care centers, drug stores — and dozens of nursing homes are now immunizing the priority, or 1a group of residents, which includes all paid and unpaid health care workers at risk for COVID-19 exposure and residents and staff at long-term care facilities.

Ramping up first vaccine megasites

On Friday the state will open the first two of six planned vaccine megasites, Persichilli said, in Gloucester and Morris counties. Those operations will initially serve members of the 1a group and will aim to vaccinate 1,000 people a week, she said Monday.

Murphy said members of the National Guard or other military branches may be deployed to help set up the immunization operations — as they did with field hospitals in the spring — but only someone with the proper license and training can provide the shot in the arm. And that means more work for clinical staff already strained by rising COVID-19 hospitalizations and growing community spread.

To beef up the immunization workforce, Persichilli said the state Department of Health has put out an alert via a vaccine-related newsletter seeking to recruit retired physicians, nurses, pharmacists, paramedics and others whose training and license enables them to immunize patients. Those who want to help are urged to sign up to volunteer through their county branch of the New Jersey Medical Reserve Corps, a 5,000-member group that can serve as a backstop during a public health crisis.

“We do need vaccinators, particularly when we bring up all the megasites. So I encourage particularly recently retired individuals to sign up,” Persichilli said.

A representative for HPAE, the largest nursing union in the state, said Monday that it had not been alerted to any staff shortages related to vaccine administration.

Deciding who will get vaccine next

Eventually, when vaccine capacity expands and additional groups are eligible for immunization, the DOH hopes to inoculate as many as 2,400 people daily at these megasites. State officials are now working to determine who exactly will be part of the next eligible group, 1b, which is slated to include various frontline workers. That will be followed by group 1c, which covers residents over age 65 or those of any age with certain pre-existing conditions, according to state plans.

More than 492,000 New Jersey residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March, including at least 19,000 whose deaths have been linked to the virus. Hospitalizations had been rising for weeks — sparking concerns about staffing shortages at these facilities as well — but appear to have leveled off a bit recently, with more than 3,600 coronavirus patients in the state’s 71 acute-care sites.

On Monday, Murphy reiterated the need to protect hospital resources and staff in particular and highlighted the state’s decision to prioritize these clinicians for the vaccine. “The one thing we can’t let get overrun here is our hospital systems,” Murphy said. “If you look at our (health care) capacity, we feel really good about every resource — except health care workers.”

Although plans continue to evolve, when first announced in mid-December Murphy said the six megasites would be located in:

  • Bergen County, Meadowlands complex
  • Morris County, Rockaway Town’s Square Mall
  • Middlesex County, NJ Convention and Exposition Center, in Edison
  • Burlington County, Morristown Mall
  • Gloucester County, Rowan College of South Jersey
  • Atlantic County, Atlantic City Convention Center