New Jersey officials said they are expecting a 96% decline in the state’s supply of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines over the next two weeks, but they remain confident there will be enough doses available to support the state’s plan to vastly expand immunization eligibility in 10 days.
Gov. Phil Murphy defended his strategy Wednesday, stressing that opening eligibility on April 19 to those over age 16 does not mean everyone who qualifies will immediately come forward to be immunized. He compared it to boarding an airplane row by row, in that you don’t wait for everyone in one section to get on before calling the subsequent group.
“We’re doing this because we want to give people some peace of mind, some certainty,” that they can get an appointment after that date, Murphy explained during his latest pandemic media briefing. “We think this is the right step to take, but I want to remind everybody you’re not going to get your vaccine on April 19. You can sign up, there will be a process.”
Jabbing 70% of NJ population
The state is seeking to inoculate 4.7 million New Jerseyans — or 70% of the eligible population — by the end of June. Some 1.9 million people have been fully vaccinated so far and more than 3 million have received at least one shot. Since March 2020, nearly 940,000 state residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19, including close to 25,000 who have died.
But New Jersey has been challenged by a limited supply of vaccines since the state rolled out the first phase of its COVID-19 vaccination program in mid-December. Initial shipments were off by as much as 38% of the expected allocation, officials said at the time. The total supply of vaccines has increased significantly since then, with the state receiving more than 550,000 doses this week. But the weekly shipments continue to vary significantly, and the state is expecting 466,000 shots to be delivered next week.
New Jersey officials have long considered the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine — which received emergency authorization in late February — a critical piece of their immunization plan because it is easier to store and transport than products by Moderna and Pfizer, both of which require two doses. But Johnson & Johnson shots have not been available at the volume public health officials had hoped to see. A recent incident at a company plant in Baltimore forced it to discard a reported 15 million doses, although it’s not clear how that impacted New Jersey’s shipments.
New Jersey health commissioner Judy Persichilli said Wednesday this week’s allocation included 131,000 Johnson & Johnson doses — a higher number than usual — but she warned the shipment would decline to 15,6000 next week. For the week of April 19, when eligibility is set to expand, she said the state anticipates receiving just 5,200 doses, a 96% decline from the current level.
“We have pretty clear visibility that the Johnson & Johnson supply that went up so dramatically this week is going to be down for at least the next couple of weeks. So there are available appointments now that are probably not going to be available next week. So jump at them if you can,” Murphy said Wednesday, before noting he and First lady Tammy Murphy were able to make appointments to get their first shot Friday at the Atlantic City mega-site. He later suggested the Johnson & Johnson decline was likely a “short-term issue.”
More appointments than patients
Both the Atlantic City operation, at the convention center, and the Camden County vaccination center, at Camden County College’s Blackwood campus, reported having extra appointments available this week after they received more doses than expected. Murphy declined to say Wednesday if he would consider shifting vaccines allocated to those counties to other regions, some of which have complained they have not received sufficient supplies.
Murphy recently pledged to do more to address vaccine equity, especially among urban populations, after U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) raised concerns about allocations to Hudson County, which continues to have the lowest vaccination rate of any county. In his letter to Murphy, Menendez cited stories from NJ Spotlight News that noted Hudson County has had among the highest case rates and is home to the largest percentage of Black and Hispanic residents, groups that are most at risk for the virus. Less than 13.7% of Hudson County’s residents are vaccinated, according to state data, versus more than 30% of those in Cape May, which has the highest rate by county.
The Murphy administration has declined NJ Spotlight’s requests for data on the state’s vaccine allocations directly to counties. When asked Tuesday for data on weekly vaccine allocations from the federal government, the state Department of Health directed the media organization to file a public records’ request to obtain the information.