State health officials are increasingly focused on local data in their quest to encourage New Jerseyans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, posting municipal-level immunization rates online for the first time and publicly naming towns that are lagging.
Gov. Phil Murphy said on Monday that the strategy is already paying off.
New Brunswick, Perth Amboy and Trenton saw the percentage of vaccinated residents rise by six points since he drew attention to their low immunization rates last week, Murphy said, and the pace of shots has also picked up in some of the dozen other municipalities he named. At that time Murphy outlined a plan for additional business openings and unveiled Operation Jersey Summer, a final push to get residents inoculated against COVID-19.
“Over the past week we have seen marked increases across the board, and while this is a very good thing, no one should rest on any laurels as there is still much work to be done,” Murphy said Monday at his regular pandemic media briefing. Several hours later, federal officials approved the emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12-15, which is expected to further expand New Jersey’s immunization coverage in the weeks to come.
The municipal immunization data — which appear as a set of maps, with darker colors indicating higher vaccination rates — is just one of several factors New Jersey officials have recently added to their COVID-19 dashboard, a website designed to help the public track the state’s pandemic response. While the dashboard has long noted the number of coronavirus cases among long-term care staff and residents, last week it was updated to include figures for hospital workers as well, as required under a law Murphy signed months ago. Patient cases have been available since last year.
Murphy: Not ‘meant to shame any communities’
“This mapping tool is not meant to create competitions among any communities, nor is it meant to shame any communities,” Murphy said Monday. “But, through this data we hope that you will not only have access to the same data we do, but that you can see why we will be deploying resources to certain communities as opposed to others.”
Public health experts have long urged the state to share more granular data to help guide residents’ response to the pandemic, which has now infected more than 1 million New Jerseyans, including nearly 26,000 who have died as a result. But while Murphy has publicly embraced transparency, his staff has delayed or declined to reveal some details — including zip-code-level case data in smaller communities, which they argue could violate patient privacy.
When it comes to COVID-19 immunizations, a more localized strategy is needed if New Jersey is going to meet its goal of inoculating 4.7 million people by July, Murphy stressed on Monday. Nearly 3.5 million residents are fully vaccinated, according to state data, but the pace of getting people immunized has slowed significantly in recent weeks. Daily doses had dropped to around 50,000 by the end of last week, down from a peak of more than 120,000 in early April. Also concerning for public health officials is that the rate of immunizations for Black and Hispanic residents — who were particularly hard-hit by the pandemic — has been lower than for white individuals.
“We’re going to have to scrap to get there, I suspect,” Murphy said. That 4.7 million target does not include individuals between ages 12 and 15, the group that federal regulators approved for vaccination late Monday. But Murphy said his administration is already working with school districts on plans for pop-up clinics dedicated to the newly eligible students.
Persichilli: ‘We have a lot of work to do’
Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday that to reach the state’s vaccination target on time, New Jersey will need to administer about 280,000 first doses a week for the rest of May and 220,000 a week in June. “We have a lot of work to do,” Persichilli said.
The state’s COVID-19 dashboard — which has evolved significantly over the past year ––now includes more than a dozen pages of data that highlight daily and cumulative case numbers, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccine administration, statewide and by county or region. It also tracks outbreaks at more than 700 long-term care facilities and various state-run institutions, highlights the demographic impact of the virus, and provides updates on the work of local contact tracers, who are tasked with trying to control its spread.
According to the new data map, some of the communities Murphy highlighted last week for low immunization rates have seen real improvement. Vaccination rates among all age groups in Newark rose from 16% to 23%; Camden increased from 12% to 18%; and Lakewood, with 10% vaccinated — the state’s lowest rate — increased to 14%. But Passaic’s immunized population increased from 18% to 20% and New Brunswick grew from 12% to 13% in that time.
Mapping municipal data also allows viewers to identify quirks not obvious from the county-level data. In Ocean County, for example, sprawling Berkeley Township has a vaccination rate among all age groups of 41% and large Toms River Township, to the north, has immunized 33% of its citizens. In between are two small, doughnut-hole municipalities: Beachwood Borough, with 27% vaccinated, and tiny South Toms River, with only 19% immunized.