For months, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has highlighted the state’s goal of vaccinating 4.7 million people against COVID-19 within six months, something he said can be done by this summer. By Memorial Day, or by the Fourth of July, things will “look much better,” Murphy predicts.
But state health commissioner Judy Persichilli, who often appears next to the governor during their media briefings, seems to have a different timeline. She talks about immunizing 4.7 million people within six months of when there is an adequate supply of the vaccine, something that doesn’t yet exist. When briefing lawmakers in October, Persichilli indicated it could take until fall to reach this 4.7 million goal — which is 70% of those eligible, a level needed to control the spread of the virus.
Immunization efforts in New Jersey and other states have been hampered by a limited supply of vaccines from federal sources, something President Joe Biden has promised to change. Biden and other federal officials said last week that vaccines will be widely available by May and June and that come July, anyone who wants a shot will have access.
At his media briefing Wednesday, Murphy insisted that while vaccine distribution may be slower at first than anticipated, the volume will increase and the state is still on track to immunize 4.7 million by late June or early July.
Six months from when?
“The Biden team was making great progress, which is still very much the case,” Murphy said, even with news that another potential vaccine from Johnson & Johnson may take longer to roll out. “But that six-month window still felt plus or minus right,” he said, confirming that his timeline began in December. The governor’s office declined Friday to clarify or comment on the discrepancy between the governor’s timeline and that of Commissioner Persichilli.
Almost 1.6 million shots had been administered in New Jersey as of last week, with nearly 500,000 people receiving the two doses recommended by drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which could receive emergency approval sometime this week, involves one shot. New Jersey now has some 300 sites able to vaccinate tens of thousands of people daily, although the snowstorm delayed the arrival of some doses last week, state officials said.
Given the system’s capacity, Perry Halkitis, the dean at Rutgers University’s School of Public Health, said vaccinating millions of people in the coming three months is a “completely realistic and attainable” goal, especially if the Johnson & Johnson version becomes available. As the weather improves, the task becomes easier, he added.
“Now the federal government needs to assure we have these vaccines,” Halkitis added, which he said should happen given Biden’s efforts to boost manufacturing.
The differing timelines of the governor and health commissioner do not appear to have had any significant impact on public policy or services. And health experts are not saying the state needs to reach the goal of 70% of eligible residents vaccinated to start easing restrictions.
Could make for confusion
But the alternate messaging could contribute to public confusion, according to epidemiologist Stephanie Silvera, a professor of public health at Montclair State University. Clear communication is particularly important when dealing with an issue as complex, evolving and unknown as the coronavirus, she noted, for which most people don’t have much context.
“Expecting the general public to navigate through that nuance can be very difficult and challenging. And it leads to frustration,” Silvera said. “The governor is walking this tightrope of wanting to be hopeful without overselling,” she said. “But whatever message he is giving needs to match up pretty closely with what the (state health) commissioner is saying.”
Silvera said public frustration may have begun to ease slightly as vaccine supplies increased and new vaccination sites came online, although storm delays created new annoyances. But it’s important for the public to know the road back from the pandemic is a long one, she said, and vaccination clinics will need to continue working for months to come.
“We still haven’t opened it up to a lot of the priority groups that people would like to vaccinate, like schoolteachers,” Silvera said.
Under New Jersey’s current regulations, vaccinations are available to health care workers, staff and residents in long-term care, individuals over 65 and those over 16 who have certain chronic conditions, like diabetes, COPD or cancer. Smokers are also eligible. While these categories cover more than 3 million people, the state has not yet opened the doors to other essential workers, like teachers.
In unison on need for continued precautions
Whatever the end date of the vaccination program, Murphy and Persichilli repeatedly urge people to be patient while the vaccine supply increases. They are also in unison on the need to continue taking COVID-19 precautions — like washing hands, social distancing and staying home when sick — especially as new, more dangerous variants of the virus emerge. Both encouraged residents to download the state’s COVID alert app, which can help track the spread of the disease and is now available in 12 languages.
Masking also remains critical, including for those who have been vaccinated, they said. Persichilli outlined the proper procedure for double-masking, which is now recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control in Prevention. The disposable mask goes inside, with a multi-layered cloth mask on top that “should push the edges of the inner mask against your face for a tight fit,” she said, noting, “correct and consistent masking is an important step everyone should take to prevent getting and spreading the virus.”
On Wednesday, Murphy reiterated the need to continue with all these precautions indefinitely, even as the state starts to ease some of its public mandates. Given the evolving virus and other unknowns, vaccines alone aren’t sufficient protection, he said.
“We want folks to continue to use common sense. I know it’s the basic stuff that we’ve been preaching from day one,” Murphy said. “Remember, we cracked the back of the curve in the first wave without a vaccine because we did the basic stuff by the millions in the state.”
Silvera herself is cautiously optimistic but warns there are many moving pieces to the immunization plan that must fit together for success. Her message to the public: “Don’t throw off your mask and start making out with people” come Memorial Day.