Lower demand for COVID-19 vaccinations: How NJ is preparing to counter that

Gov. Murphy has downplayed vaccine hesitancy. State officials say declining demand is no surprise
Credit: (AP Photo/Haven Daley)
File photo: Sign at COVID-19 vaccination site

The number of COVID-19 vaccines administered every day in New Jersey has declined sharply over recent weeks, but state officials said they have a plan to counter the drop and still reach their goal of immunizing 4.7 million people by July.

That plan — parts of which will be rolled out later this week — is likely to include additional public service announcements, more partnerships with churches and other community organizations. Some elements may also feature a fresh focus on specific populations, like students and staff on college campuses, according to state officials. The state Department of Health is also taking steps to ensure people who opted for the common two-shot vaccines get both of the doses needed for maximum protection, they said.

When discussing the recent drop in daily immunizations, Gov. Phil Murphy downplayed the impact of vaccine hesitancy — something officials had feared would be more apparent — instead attributing the decline to warm weather, positive trends in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and a possible sense of invincibility among those who haven’t been sick.

“I say, with all due respect to all of that, those are not reasons enough. We need folks to get vaccinated,” Murphy said at his regular pandemic media briefing Monday. “We think based on the proactive steps that we either are taking with public service announcements, to other outreach, or will take, that we will accomplish that goal. We do believe we’ll have the supplies we need.”

Initial demand ‘pretty well satisfied’

While limited vaccine supplies had bedeviled New Jersey and other states for months, DOH commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday that the state has recently been receiving roughly 740,000 doses a week. As a result, the initial demand for immunizations has been “pretty well satisfied,” she said. Some 2.8 million have now been fully vaccinated here, including at least 85% of those over age 65.

Persichilli said she remains confident the state will reach its target; 4.7 million people comprise 70% of the eligible adults, a level considered likely to provide effective community protection. “We’ll find those millions. We will reach them. We will reach that 70%, I can guarantee it,” she said Monday.

After a slow start, New Jersey now has more than 400 immunization sites — run by state, county and local governments, hospitals and health care providers, private pharmacies and community-based organizations — and administered more than 120,000 shots daily in early April, according to state data. But by mid-month this had dropped to less than 100,000 doses a day; by the end of last week it had dipped further, to below 70,000 shots daily.

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Murphy and Persichilli said Monday that this decline was no surprise, however, and stressed that additional public outreach to encourage vaccination was already in the works. Like the phased immunization plan itself — which began with health care workers and long-term care residents and expanded in steps — new communications efforts will be introduced as the need evolves, Persichilli said.

Need for ‘more strategic approaches’

“We hope this wider messaging to all audiences who are now eligible will help move them to take action,” Persichilli said. “We know we also need more strategic approaches to reach all residents. Coupled with messaging, we, as you know, partner with church leaders and community leaders to create pop-up vaccination events to bring vaccine closer to where people are.”

The state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan, presented to federal officials last year, outlines three phases of public interest and engagement: vaccine scarcity and growing demand; more balanced supply and demand; and declining demand with sufficient supply. For months, New Jersey residents struggled to secure a limited number of appointments, while the pool of people eligible for vaccination continued to grow. Suddenly that changed and in recent weeks supply seemed to exceed demand, enabling some sites to accept walk-in appointments.

The vaccination plan also outlines the public outreach initiatives the state will take to address a decline in vaccine uptake. “As enough vaccine becomes available and demand slows, it will be increasingly important for outreach at the community level through a statewide public awareness campaign. The campaign will include trusted public health officials and respected local religious and community influencers, but it will also amplify the voices of local survivors in the community and those who have lost loved ones,” it reads.

Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Jan. 21, 2021, People waited in line for COVID-19 vaccinations in Paterson, no appointment then necessary. The first of them had arrived around 2:30 a.m.

The communication strategy described in the plan underscores the deadly nature of COVID-19, which has infected nearly 1 million New Jerseyans, including some 25,000 who have died. It calls for videos and “testimonials to make a connection between the … people lost during the pandemic and those who are still suffering the long-term effects of COVID-19.” These would be distributed through multiple channels, including social media, and shared with local health agencies and community-based organizations.

The state is already conducting a vaccine awareness campaign, funded with $25 million in federal aid, that includes several ads now in English and Spanish running on network television, cable stations and radio, DOH spokeswoman Dawn Thomas said. Additional spots are expected to be rolled out later this week, she said.

Thomas said the existing program includes dozens of video messages and other outreach on social media, printed flyers, and digital and print format ads designed to address vaccine hesitancy and encourage immunization. Some outreach features Persichilli, doctors who are community leaders, and University Hospital, Newark nurse Maritza Beniquez, the first New Jerseyan to get vaccinated, she said.

State officials are taking steps to ensure those who received vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer, which require two shots, actually receive both doses. Administration of a third vaccine by Johnson & Johnson — initially touted as a “game changer” because it involves one shot and simpler storage requirements — was paused for ten days following concerns about a connection to rare blood clots; federal officials have since allowed it to be used again, but it is not clear when New Jersey will receive additional shipments.

The latest numbers

Persichilli said 91% of New Jerseyans are getting their second dose on time, with 93% finishing the full course after six weeks. The second dose is to be administered within a month of the first, ideally. While this exceeds the national rate of 88%, it still leaves some residents without maximum viral protection, she said.

The health department is now using its vaccine call center to boost second-shot compliance, Persichilli said, with operators making calls to individuals who have failed to get the second dose on schedule; while second-shot appointments are supposed to be scheduled at the time of the first dose, this doesn’t always happen. The call center has worked effectively in the past to call seniors and schedule them for shots, helping to boost immunization rates among elderly residents who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Persichilli also encouraged people who have put off their second dose to take steps to finish the process. She urged them to contact the call center (855-568-0545) with any questions or for help in scheduling an appointment at a convenient location, regardless of where the first shot was administered. If people are hesitant about the process, she recommended they talk to people they trust.

“It may be that (call center schedulers) send you to a local pharmacy if that’s more convenient for you,” Persichilli said. “We encourage people to seek out guidance from their health care professionals, to call the call center and try to talk it through. We want to listen to every single person because it’s so important that you fulfill all of the vaccine regimen.”

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