Q&A: The next round in NJ’s rollout of COVID-19 vaccine

Gov. Phil Murphy announces that law enforcement and firefighters can now receive vaccines  
Credit: (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
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New Jersey is moving to a second round of COVID-19 vaccinations, announcing Wednesday that the next group of eligible people will be inoculated soon. It will be some time before the vaccine is widely available. And the state is still moving to get vaccines to health care workers, residents at long-term care facilities and others in its first priority group.

Here are key questions and answers about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout as it stands now.

Who is being vaccinated now?

New Jersey chose to prioritize paid and unpaid health care workers, staff and residents in long-term care centers, and others in many congregate care settings, including state-run facilities for disabled individuals and federal senior housing sites. These are all considered part of the 1a group. According to the state’s calculations, there are roughly 650,000 health care workers in the state and 90,000 residents in nursing homes, assisted living and other long-term care. Tens of thousands more live in other congregate settings. While officials believe it is an undercount, they reported nearly 138,000 people have been vaccinated so far.

On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that law enforcement and firefighters — both paid and volunteer — could also receive vaccines, starting today. Emergency medical responders are eligible as part of the 1a group. This work puts them at risk of infection, he said, and the state wants to immunize as many people as possible as quickly as it can to help slow the spread. Police and fire officials are considered members of the 1b group of frontline workers, which also includes other professions that come in contact with the public, like bus drivers and other transportation workers or food handlers.

“These are our frontline responders who through their jobs have a greater risk of coming into contact with infectious people and infectious materials. We are able to open up vaccination to them based on the available supply,” state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said, noting 1a individuals will still be eligible. “The movement between phases will be fluid — one phase will overlap with another — we will not wait for all individuals in one phase to be vaccinated before opening to additional groups of people.”

Who comes next, and when will the rest of us be eligible?

The state Department of Health is working with an advisory committee that meets regularly to determine what other frontline workers in the 1b group will be made eligible next; additional details could be available in the near future, officials said. There are an estimated 2.5 million people in the 1b group. That will be followed by the 1c group, which includes individuals over age 65 or those of any age who have certain underlying conditions; this adds another 1 million people.

Eventually, the state hopes to vaccinate 4.7 million people — roughly 70% of those eligible for the vaccines. While the timeline continues to evolve, Persichilli said it may take until April or May before the state has enough vaccines on hand to immunize everyone on their list. State officials said they would continue to inform the public as the plan moves forward.

The vaccines are being shipped by the federal government from vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna directly to various vaccination sites in each state. Like other states, New Jersey was not initially receiving the amount it had requested, but in recent weeks it has been granted almost all of the doses ordered, more than 100,000 a week. The DOH declined to say Wednesday how many vaccines are now in state, but officials said they are not stockpiling supplies.

How do I get on the state’s list to be vaccinated?

Despite suggestions it would roll out a sign-up process slowly, New Jersey opened its vaccine sign-up portal late Tuesday; demand quickly overwhelmed the technology, which experienced several glitches before more than 450,000 people had added their names. On Wednesday, Persichilli said the site should for now be reserved for health care workers, first responders, law enforcement and firefighters, and urged the public to wait a few more weeks before trying to sign up. Sign-up is also available through some county sites or via hospital systems.

Persichilli said the system will alert individuals when they are eligible and direct them to a site to make an appointment and select a location. All information will be kept confidential, she said. Whatever sign-up system people use, “I just want them to get vaccinated,” she said.

Where are these vaccines happening?

The state started vaccinating hospital-based health care workers on Dec. 15, at University Hospital in Newark, and distribution has since grown to more than 200 sites run by hospitals, doctors’ offices, drug stores and public health facilities. These facilities are designed for the 1a group of various health care workers.

On Friday, the state will open the first two of six planned vaccine “megasites,” designed to immunize at least 1,000 people a week, at the Rockaway Townsquare Mall in Morris County and Rowan University in Gloucester County. The state is seeking additional vaccinators and has asked for clinicians trained to provide intramuscular injections to consider volunteering. Sign-up is available through the New Jersey Medical Reserve Corps portal.

Eventually, Murphy said he’d like to see hundreds of additional vaccine clinics, in grocery stores, dentist offices or community facilities. Murphy envisions “a whole tapestry of where you can get this,” he said.

The vaccinations in long-term care and congregate care facilities are being organized and administered by teams from CVS and Walgreens, thanks to a partnership the federal government established with the two chain drug stores. The state is supporting their work, which began in late December — a week later than some states — and has started at a slow pace. Persichilli said more than 1,000 locations are now scheduled to host vaccine clinics through February.

What does the immunization process involve?

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots, several weeks apart, to offer full immunity. Most of the protection comes from the first shot and develops within two weeks, once the body has time to mount an immune response. Both vaccines are considered highly effective, protecting against COVID-19 infection in close to 95% of the cases, an extremely high rate.

When asked if the vaccine is safe, state DOH communicable disease service medical director Dr. Ed Lifshitz said, “Let me put it relatively simply. In New Jersey, we’ve had about half a million cases of COVID with almost 20,000 deaths. In the United States, we’ve given almost 10 times that number of doses (of the vaccine) — or over 4 million doses — with zero deaths from the vaccine. I certainly would take my odds with the vaccine over the virus any day of the week.”