Nearly 100 Rite Aid, CVS stores to join other NJ sites offering COVID-19 vaccinations

Despite increase in vaccine allotments, demand statewide still lags supply
Credit: (AP Photo/John Locher)
File photo: Preparing a dose of vaccine

New Jerseyans eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine should soon have nearly 100 additional locations to consider, thanks to a growing federal program that plans to ship tens of thousands of additional doses directly to select chain pharmacies to administer at retail sites.

State officials said Wednesday that 70 Rite Aid sites and at least 20 CVS locations around the state will begin immunizing residents against the coronavirus “over the next week,” expanding the existing network of some 250 vaccine clinics set up at hospitals, community health centers, public health offices and former shopping centers throughout New Jersey.

Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said the chain pharmacies will receive at least 27,000 shots directly from federal stockpiles, meaning these locations will not be competing with existing New Jersey sites for the limited supply of vaccines. The state expects to receive about 143,000 first doses and 111,700 second doses this week from drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna, she said.

Vaccine supply still lags demand

While vaccine supply to New Jersey is increasing — the latest allotment includes 6,000 more than last week, Persichilli said — the state is still struggling to meet the public demand for immunizations. President Joe Biden has pledged to boost shipments, but Persichilli said “vaccine scarcity” continues to limit the number of appointments available.

“Points of distribution, as a general matter, is not our gating issue. Supply is our gating issue,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a media briefing Wednesday.

Since the immunization process began in mid-December, New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccine program has administered nearly 1.14 million shots, with more than 263,000 people having received the recommended two doses. While access was initially limited to health care workers and staff, and residents at long-term care facilities, it has since expanded greatly; state officials say more than 4 million New Jerseyans now qualify for immunization.

But getting an appointment remains challenging. Public demand has largely overwhelmed the disjointed registration and scheduling process and callers have swamped a telephone hotline established in late January.

On Wednesday Persichilli said the state had “placed a temporary pause” on operators’ ability to schedule appointments — something they were to start helping with last week — in order to “streamline the system” to avoid issues like double-booking, which had become a problem. Operators will also receive additional training, she said.

“The call center can still provide information about vaccination sites, pre-register individuals and answer frequently asked question about the COVID-19 vaccine. We hope to bring up their scheduling ability in the future,” Persichilli said.

Maintain masks and distancing

The state is seeking to vaccinate 70% of New Jersey’s eligible adults — or 4.7 million people — something Murphy has said could be done by the end of June. While people should continue to wear face masks, distance themselves and take other precautions, Murphy suggested the impact of the pandemic will diminish noticeably in the months to come. “You can see being in a dramatically different place not that long from now,” he said.

The administration is also working on strategies to improve the equity of vaccine distribution by establishing immunization sites at places of worship, community centers and with mobile vans that can be dispatched to underserved communities. The pandemic and the economic fallout that resulted have taken an outsize toll on communities of color, but half of the shots administered in New Jersey have gone to white people, while 5% have been given to Hispanics and 3% to Black residents. Asians have received 6% and at least 35% of the vaccines have gone to people of other or unknown race.

The state is also relying on at least 30 federally funded community health centers — established medical providers in low-income areas around the state — to help reach Black and brown people. That effort will likely expand in the weeks to come, as the federal government announced Tuesday that it would also ship additional vaccines to these facilities, which care for patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.

While it was not among the first seven states selected for additional supplies, Persichilli said, “we look forward to New Jersey benefiting from this program.”

Adding CVS and Rite Aid locations to the state’s vaccine map will also help those in underserved communities, state officials said. Some three-dozen ShopRite pharmacies are already part of the state’s coronavirus immunization system, but the doses they receive are part of New Jersey’s general allocation. But CVS and Rite Aid’s corporate parent, Walgreens, is part of a national partnership established by the Trump administration to offer the shots at long-term-care sites and can tap the federal supply directly.

Details still to come

How exactly the vaccination process will work with CVS and Rite Aid — which are administering shots in other states — was not immediately clear. The state Department of Health did not provide any additional information Wednesday on which locations are participating or how people can sign up, but both companies operate registration systems through their websites.