As masks come off, vaccine push goes on

NJ will make efforts over the holiday weekend to get COVID-19 shots to more people as pandemic restrictions ease
Credit: Scott Thomas Photography via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Boardwalk juggler

People in New Jersey can cast off their masks and mingle come Friday, but state officials said the COVID-19 vaccine campaign will continue full force — albeit with a festive overtone — over the Memorial Day weekend and beyond.

On Wednesday Gov. Phil Murphy and state health commissioner Judy Persichilli outlined some of the celebratory immunization events pending for the next few days, including a half-dozen “block-party” style street festivals hosted by churches in communities where vaccination rates continue to lag.

The NY Red Bulls will host a vaccination clinic at their Harrison stadium — open to ticketholders and members of the public — before their Saturday match, Persichilli said. And the state partnered with local organizations to organize immunization opportunities at three Jersey Shore sites over the weekend, including an event on the Asbury Park boardwalk Murphy and Persichilli said they will attend.

“It’s all about access,” said Christopher Rinn, president and CEO of the Central Jersey VNA Community Health Center, which has led multiple community-based vaccination initiatives this spring and is working on this weekend’s Shore clinics.

Rinn said time and convenience are two factors that have kept some people from getting these shots, and Memorial Day provides many people with some downtime. “We want to take that opportunity and get them vaccinated,” he said. “We want them to know, we’ll take care of you.”

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4.7M jabs by end of June

The state is seeking to vaccinate 4.7 million people over age 16 by the end of June, a goal Murphy said Wednesday is still attainable, albeit challenging. More than 4.1 million have been fully immunized to date, according to state statistics, but the pace of shots has slowed significantly in recent weeks.

“I believe we will (get to 4.7 million), but not without a lot of effort,” Murphy said at Wednesday’s pandemic news conference.

Earlier this month the state launched Operation Jersey Summer, an immunization campaign designed to counteract the slowing trend with additional local vaccination-clinic options and public education efforts. The initiative also involves a crew of paid and volunteer outreach workers who go door to door to spread the word about vaccines.

“These pop-up clinics are making progress in vaccinating residents where they live, work and play,” Persichilli said. More than 760 residents have been vaccinated at similar events held the past weekend alone, she said.

These events may become even more important come Friday when the state drops its indoor mask mandate and a host of other regulations designed to slow the spread of the disease. While COVID-19 hospitalization rates and deaths have sharply declined, more than 600 people remain in acute care facilities and a dozen individuals reportedly died since Tuesday, according to state figures.

Pop-up sites in hard-hit counties

Memorial Day weekend vaccination events include Department of Health partnerships with houses of worship in Orange, Glen Rock, Newark, Pleasantville, Atlantic City and Hightstown, Persichilli said, and pop-up sites in five hard-hit counties. The VNA is working with Monmouth County, Walmart and the DOH on the Jersey Shore events at the Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, the Grand Arcade in Asbury Park and the Long Branch Boardwalk Gazebo, she said.

The state had previously identified several dozen communities that have particularly low vaccination rates, including many of New Jersey’s larger cities, which are targeted for door-to-door outreach. These cities also tend to have significant Black and Hispanic populations, groups that have suffered disproportionately under the pandemic but are less likely to be immunized than the state’s white residents.

Murphy underscored Wednesday that the state is “not vilifying these communities or trying to embarrass anybody. The fact of the matter is, we’ve got to punch up at a higher weight in terms of our vaccine penetration.” Murphy also stressed that the vaccines are free to everyone, regardless of whether they have health insurance, and shots are available to all who work, learn or live in New Jersey — including those who are undocumented. No one will question your citizenship, he said.

“Cost should not be among your considerations,” Murphy said. “No one will ask your status when you go to get vaccinated. This is about ensuring public health and the personal health of everyone in our state.”

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