Called “Operation Jersey Summer,” New Jersey’s plan for a final push to get people inoculated against COVID-19 will use direct engagement in communities where immunization rates are lagging and novel partnerships to overcome lingering vaccine hesitancy.
Gov. Phil Murphy outlined that additional public outreach and more Monday moments after he described steps the state will take over the coming weeks to further reopen the economy by increasing access at indoor and outdoor venues and allowing people to return to some things that have long been off-limits, like dance floors and salad bars. Masking and social distancing will remain in effect, based on federal guidelines, he added.
A first-term Democrat seeking reelection in November, Murphy said the reopening was possible because of the steady decline in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and in the growing vaccination coverage in the state. But more people need to be immunized to ensure this trend continues, he said. And the reopening plans could be delayed if coronavirus metrics don’t continue their positive trajectory, Murphy warned.
“Over the next eight weeks, we are going to be doing everything we can to make sure that every New Jerseyan recognizes that the vaccines in our toolbox are safe and effective. We are going to make sure they know how easy it is to get vaccinated,” Murphy said. People need to know that “our ability to end this pandemic, and to get our economy and our communities back up and fully running again, requires all of us to keep working together and getting vaccinated,” he said.
New Jersey has reported more than 1 million COVID-19 cases, including some 25,000 who have died as a result, according to state data. More than 3 million people have been fully vaccinated here since the vaccination program began in mid-December, officials report, but the pace of daily shots has declined close to 50% since it peaked in early April.
Vaccine hesitancy still a challenge
Murphy and state Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said vaccine hesitancy remains a challenge, particularly among some communities, and that resistance has ticked up slightly in recent weeks. That could reflect the pause in Johnson & Johnson vaccine administration triggered by an investigation into rare blood clots, they said. According to the DOH’s most recent survey of more than 700 people, nearly 60% said they had been, or would be, vaccinated while 22% said they would not.
Both Murphy and Persichilli insist New Jersey can still meet its target of immunizing 4.7 million residents by July. The state has already stepped up public outreach — with additional advertisements and public forums — and expanded community-based partnerships. Murphy said that will now go into “overdrive” under the new campaign.
To underscore the urgency, Murphy — a former U.S. ambassador to Germany — went off script at the Monday briefing, comparing the state’s battle with the pandemic to the end of World War II.
“We are winning this war but, then and now, we’re still losing too many of our comrades,” he said. The Operation Jersey Summer campaign is a comprehensive push, unlike any other state-based effort in America, “to drop the hammer. It’s time to take Berlin and put a stake in the heart of this virus,” he added.
The new vaccination campaign aims to address vaccine hesitancy through new education and public messaging, Murphy said, but also seeks to help people overcome logistical issues — like technical or language gaps — that created barriers for many earlier this year. Four out of the six vaccine mega-sites overseen by the state are now offering walk-in shots, with no pre-registration needed, he said, and some will also be sharing their vaccine supplies with local pharmacies and doctors’ offices to make immunization even more accessible.
Persichilli said the state has also trained 900 volunteers for its new COVID Community Corps, who can help people to get accurate information on the vaccines and navigate the system to schedule an appointment. These representatives will be dispatched to underserved communities with high levels of poverty, large minority populations and lagging vaccine rates, she said.
Communities with low vaccination rates
The DOH has identified dozens of communities that need additional support, Murphy and Persichilli said, and plans to release hyper-local data to help local and county leaders address the gaps. The governor highlighted 16 communities of particular concern, where vaccination rates ranged from 10% (Lakewood) to 18% (Passaic). The list included most of New Jersey’s major urban areas, including Camden and New Brunswick (with rates around 12%), Trenton (14%), and Newark (16%).
“This is not going to be a competition between towns and communities, or meant to shame any community, but having these numbers out there for everyone to see is important to ensuring that everyone is working and pulling together,” Murphy said. In the past, the state has refused to release local coronavirus data for smaller communities, claiming that it could violate privacy rights.
“Like any good campaign, we’re also putting an army of boots on the ground … in communities throughout the state,” Murphy said in describing the COVID Community Corps. But instead of selling a candidate or public policy, these campaign workers will help educate residents on the vaccines and connect them with shots, including providing language or technical assistance.
Murphy’s administration has also established new partnerships to encourage vaccination, including an effort with churches called “Grateful for the Shot” that the governor said was “ripped from the playbook” of “Souls to the Polls,” which has helped expand voting in Black communities. A pact with the Brewers Guild of New Jersey led to the “Shot and a Beer” initiative, in which Murphy said people who got their first vaccine dose in May can get a free beer at any of a dozen local breweries.
“This is the only reason I regret I already got my first shot,” the governor joked Monday. He and first lady Tammy Murphy received their second and final dose of the vaccine on Friday, at the mega-site in Atlantic City.