Gov. Phil Murphy pledged Wednesday to improve the equity of COVID-19 vaccine distribution in New Jersey’s urban communities in response to criticism that Hudson County — whose diverse, closely packed communities were particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus — has not been receiving its fair share of the state’s shots.
Murphy’s comments came the day after U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) shared his “deep concern” that Hudson County residents do not have equitable access to the vaccines in a letter that cited several NJ Spotlight News reports, including a story posted last week on how Hudson had the lowest vaccination rate in New Jersey. With just 9% of its residents fully immunized, Hudson remains the only county with a single-digit vaccination rate, according to state data.
Home to coronavirus variants
Adding to the concern is the recent growth of coronavirus variants, which appear to be spreading quickly in some communities, including parts of Hudson and Essex counties, although testing is limited. Hudson County is home to six of the seven mutant strains identified so far in New Jersey. And while the numbers are still small, in Hudson cases involving the New York variant, jumped 60% since Monday alone, according to state data. Essex County is home to three variants.
“There’s no denying that we’re not where we want to be on equity” in vaccine distribution, Murphy said at his regular media briefing Wednesday, stressing that limited supply from federal sources remains a significant barrier. “We’re proud of the record we’ve got as far as getting shots in arms,” he added, “but as far as equity, this is a work in progress. But we will get there, period, full stop.”
Asked about the outreach from Menendez, Murphy said, “We take that letter very seriously,” adding that it echoed the message he was hearing from other urban leaders from both Hudson and Essex counties. “We’re not telling you we might — we will get to all corners, especially the hard-to-reach elements of our urban communities over the next period of time,” he said.
Unanswered questions about allocations
Murphy has insisted that his team works closely with leaders from all counties on vaccine allocation, but the state has declined multiple requests for a county-by-county breakdown of the shots distributed. The process is also complicated by the uncertain supply; state officials said they only learn one week in advance how many doses they will receive from federal sources and the number can shift by tens of thousands each week.
While equity has always been a factor in the state’s distribution process, New Jersey officials forged recent partnerships with churches and other community groups to do a better job getting COVID-19 vaccine to minority communities that have suffered an outsize burden during the pandemic. On Wednesday Murphy said they plan to expand these options as more vaccines become available and are also working to outfit a trio of vans that can serve as mobile immunization clinics that can be dispatched directly to at-risk communities.
While Black and Hispanic individuals are more likely than white New Jerseyans to be infected, hospitalized and die from the virus, they are being vaccinated at a slower pace. According to state tracking, less than 5% of the more than 3.6 million shots given since December have gone to Black people, just over 7% to Hispanics and more than 58% to whites.
That data indicates the challenges involved with vaccinating people in Hudson County, which has the third-highest percentage of Black and Hispanic residents — after Essex and Passaic counties — a high concentration of poverty and more homes without cars than any other county. With many of the state’s immunization sites operating as drive-throughs, automobiles are considered an important factor in accessing shots. And the dense population makes the disease more likely to spread.
Given the demographics and the high COVID-19 incidence, Hudson County officials — egged on by growing public pressure, including several opinion pieces in the Jersey Journal — are now calling on Trenton to do more. Hudson County Commissioners have also prepared a resolution urging Murphy to “significantly increase” the vaccine supply and identify the “causes of the lagging vaccination rates” in the county, according to a draft obtained by NJ Spotlight News.
Since the first reported case in March 2020, nearly 878,000 COVID-19 diagnoses have been recorded in New Jersey, including more than 24,200 fatalities. Hudson has identified more than 77,000 cases — or nearly 11 per 1,000 residents, the second-highest rate after Passaic’s 124/1,000 — and more than 2,000 deaths.
State Department of Health commissioner Judy Persichilli described in detail the state’s vaccine allocation process Wednesday, noting “we look first at equity” — employing a formula designed to create parity in the distribution process — “and then we look at disease burden,” using death and hospitalization rates. The review also applies the “social vulnerability index,” a data tool that includes poverty rates, the racial mix of the community, access to automobiles and other factors, she said.
“Then we look at throughput — how many doses can each point of dispensing move through in a day. We don’t want to get them more then they can handle because the doses end up on a shelf,” Persichilli continued. “Lastly, we look at inventory,” assessing how many doses each clinic already has in stock for the coming weeks, she said. “And we do that for all 600 sites” that are part of New Jersey’s COVID-19 immunization program, Persichilli explained.