Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday that it will be a challenge for New Jersey to reach the COVID-19 immunization goal he set early this year and announced several new incentive programs designed to encourage more residents to get vaccinated.
The state has launched other such reward programs, like an arrangement with breweries that enables newly vaccinated individuals to get a free beer, and it has partnered with churches and other community organizations to encourage people to be immunized against COVID-19. But the pace of daily COVID-19 shots has slackened significantly in recent weeks and Murphy appeared concerned that New Jersey can still inoculate 4.7 million people over age 16 before July.
“It’s going to be a challenge, no question about it,” Murphy said Wednesday at an event in Island Beach State Park at which he announced new vaccination reward programs involving wineries, state parks and a chance to dine with the governor and first lady Tammy Murphy at one of New Jersey’s two state-run gubernatorial residences.
“Programs like this we’re not dreaming up for no reason,” Murphy said. “We need to get Operation Jersey Summer as full-bore as we possibly can,” he added, referring to the vaccination outreach and incentive campaign announced in early May.
‘The clock is definitely ticking’
New Jersey has vaccinated more than 3.9 million residents and Murphy said he expects the state to reach the 4 million mark by Thursday. But with just six weeks to go before his self-imposed deadline, the governor said he is stepping up the state’s response. “The clock is definitely ticking,” he said.
Murphy’s comments came the same day New Jersey took several significant steps to ease health and economic restrictions as part of state’s reopening, advances the governor said were possible because of progress in fighting the pandemic. And on Tuesday state lawmakers advanced reopening legislation to eliminate some, but not all, of the emergency powers Murphy has wielded over the past 15-plus months.
State officials are also concerned about immunization equity, since Black and Hispanic residents are not getting vaccinated at the same pace as white New Jerseyans. State health commissioner Judy Persichilli frequently notes that immunization is particularly important for Black and brown residents, who are far more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19, when compared to white individuals.
‘Knocking on doors’
On Wednesday Murphy highlighted the growing role of the state’s new COVID Community Corps, which officials initially said involved 900 trained volunteers who would be dispatched to vulnerable communities to answer questions about vaccination and help people schedule immunization appointments. The corps has since grown, Murphy said, with paid members added, and its members are “knocking on doors” in areas with low vaccination rates.
According to the state Department of Health, corps members have already visited Newark, East Orange, Perth Amboy, New Brunswick, North Brunswick, Passaic and Trenton. On Friday they will also visit Trenton, Camden, Jersey City and Bayonne, with stops in Atlantic City and Vineland on the list for next week.
Murphy said the corps is focused on communities that are “under-punching” on their vaccination rate. “They are not entirely, but virtually entirely, communities of color — where we know we’ve got equity issues, where we’ve got to bring the vaccine to the people, as opposed to sitting back and expecting the people will come to the vaccine,” he said.
The COVID Community Corps is just one of the “many vectors” the state has employed to reach under-vaccinated areas, Murphy said. And additional initiatives will likely be announced Monday, he said, along with new reopening steps. Efforts to promote immunization will continue beyond June 30, he added.
State Department of Environmental Protection acting commissioner Shawn LaTourette joined Murphy at the beachside podium Wednesday to announce a parks-related vaccination program. Under the new “Vax Pass” program, anyone who is vaccinated, or receives the first of what can be two shots during the month of May, can receive a free season’s pass to access New Jersey’s 51 state parks, many of which usually charge admission.
Wine and a chance to dine
LaTourette said these open spaces have proved especially valuable during the past year of the pandemic. Vaccinated individuals who have already purchased a season pass can be reimbursed if they offer proof of their immunization, he said.
Others may be enticed by the “Uncork the Vaccination” promotion Murphy announced in conjunction with the Garden State Wine Growers Association. Under the deal, those who get a first shot this month can enjoy a free glass of wine at one of nine participating vineyards.
Immunized New Jerseyans, including those who start the process in the next two weeks, can also enter a contest to win a dinner for two with the governor and his wife, Tammy Murphy. They will host a meal and a tour for the vaccinated couple at either Drumthwacket, the state-owned governor’s mansion in Princeton, or at the gubernatorial Shore home within Island Beach State Park.