Amid growing public frustration, Gov. Phil Murphy defended the state’s patchwork COVID-19 vaccination sign-up system as a process still being refined and reiterated his pleas for patience with New Jersey’s coronavirus immunization program.
“Remember we are building the airplane here as we’re flying it. It may be the most complex logistical undertaking — other than going to war — in the history of the United States,” Murphy said Wednesday, when asked about the increasingly unpopular registration program.
“Obviously this is a work in progress,” Murphy said, while listing successful aspects of the COVID-19 vaccine infrastructure, including several hundred immunization sites and a telephone hotline that took nearly 60,000 calls in the first four hours. “All of that is from scratch, literally in a number of weeks,” he said.
State officials are facing a rising tide of public frustration over the vaccine program, which has distributed more than 640,000 doses to residents since its launch in mid-December. The state hopes to immunize at least 4.7 million people, or 70% of those eligible, but the effort so far has been hampered by lack of vaccines from federal sources and operational challenges here at home.
Feds pushing to ship more vaccine
On Wednesday, Murphy said federal vaccine shipments appear to be on the uptick. With the Biden administration pushing to distribute more serum to the states, New Jersey is slated to receive roughly 130,000 doses a week for the next three weeks, he said. That’s a nearly 19% increase over the 106,000 vaccines it had recently been receiving weekly.
Regardless of how much of the vaccine is getting to New Jersey, members of the public have complained about the lack of access to immunization sites, directing much of their anger at the state’s online registration program, the New Jersey Vaccine Scheduling System. Residents were encouraged to sign up through the portal, but many found it nearly impossible to secure an appointment through the system.
That’s because less than 5% of the vaccine sites open to the general public — or nine of 205 — are connected to the state registration database, according to state records. Most locations are instead requiring people to sign up through existing corporate websites or new links created for the purpose.
No explanation for piecemeal approach
Murphy and state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli declined to say why the state did not opt for a unified system from the start when asked at Wednesday’s media briefing or offer details on what is being done to improve the operation. Instead, they underscored the challenges that come with building a new infrastructure to handle an unprecedented task.
“That was a new build. We did not have at the Department of Health, through our (existing) immunization (tracking) system, a scheduling system,” Persichilli said. Information-technology staff from the state worked with consultants from Microsoft to create a pre-registration system at first, she said, adding, “putting it in the appointments system proved to be a little more difficult.”
“It was a big undertaking and we’re still working out a number of bugs. It’s something we’ve never done before at the Department of Health,” she said.
The vaccine effort — in New Jersey and nationwide — far exceeds previous immunization campaigns in scope and urgency, experts agree. But Murphy’s comments seem somewhat at odds with previous statements he made about the state’s efforts to plan its COVID-19 response, including a statewide vaccine campaign.
When did NJ first discuss registration?
In media briefings last year, Murphy suggested that coronavirus vaccines were discussed by state officials as early as February 2020, when his COVID-19 task force began to meet. Work on the state’s vaccine plan began in earnest over the summer, Persichilli said, and by September a large group of vaccine experts, eventually divided into nine subcommittees, was meeting daily.
New Jersey submitted its initial vaccine plan to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in October. Persichilli also testified before a legislative budget committee that month, noting the DOH had budgeted $6 million to hire additional staff to “manage and oversee” the coronavirus response, including the massive vaccination campaign.
By the end of October, Murphy said that whenever a vaccine is approved for emergency use — a designation Pfizer achieved in late November — and distributed to the states, “We will be ready.”