Lakewood Mayor Ray Coles wants people to know government officials and community leaders are working very hard to increase COVID-19 vaccine coverage in the Ocean County township. And, slowly but surely, it is working.

“It’s not a public-relations campaign anymore, it’s not television ads, or newspaper ads. It really comes down to personal relationships,” Coles said.

In addition to overseeing various public-private partnerships designed to boost vaccine rates in the community, Coles said he has also been counseling friends and neighbors on the benefits of immunization. Several have since received shots, although the decision created a rift for at least one family. “I guess my nagging finally got to them,” Coles joked.

Nearly half of Lakewood’s adult residents have received at least one shot, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health, but the township still has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate among New Jersey communities of 10,000 or more. While Lakewood is somewhat unique — it has a large Orthodox Jewish population, many of whom claim to have immunity after contracting COVID-19 — it is certainly not alone.

Not all of NJ is equally protected

Some 5.2 million New Jerseyans have now been fully inoculated against COVID-19 — accounting for more than 70% of the state’s total population — but not all communities are equally protected. In Essex County, just 53% of those 18 and older in East Orange and Irvington have had at least one shot, according to the state data, along with 55% of the adults in Camden and 57% of those in Wallington Borough, in Bergen County.

“We continue to focus on increasing vaccinations in communities where we see lower rates,” state health commissioner Judy Persichilli said at a pandemic media briefing earlier this month. She also said these collaborations are paying off in terms of rising immunization levels.

The effort includes county-level vaccine “ambassadors” who work with elected officials and local organizations, teams of young people going door to door distributing accurate information about the vaccines and partnerships with local health providers to make the shots more accessible, officials said. The state is also using TikTok and Instagram to reach younger residents, who can be vaccinated starting at age 12.

Some towns have made progress

When summer began, 10 towns with 10,000-plus populations were on the health department watch list for low vaccination rates. Lakewood, East Orange, Irvington, Camden and Wallington remain a concern, but five other municipalities — Phillipsburg, Pemberton, New Brunswick, Glassboro and Bridgeton — have since made significant progress.

The vaccines, which the state began to distribute in December, have been found to be more than 99.9% effective in New Jersey against COVID-19 infection and even better at preventing serious illness and death, according to a state analysis. But new diagnoses continue to be reported daily — at times outpacing last year’s numbers — and hospitalizations and deaths are holding steady in recent weeks, indicating that the virus is still spreading among those without immunity.

“I cannot repeat it enough. We do not have a pandemic among the vaccinated,” Gov. Phil Murphy said last Monday. “We only have a pandemic among the unvaccinated.”

Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital in Newark, just over the border from Irvington and East Orange, said he did not have a breakdown of patient data by ZIP code. “To our knowledge, every single person admitted in the last couple of months with COVID has been unvaccinated,” added Elnahal, the previous state health commissioner.

Racism, discrimination in health care system

Data alone may not be enough to overcome hesitancy about the vaccine, or distrust of government itself, experts note. America’s history of conducting medical experiments on Black and Hispanic individuals plus ongoing racism and discrimination within the health care system have left some communities skeptical of the shots. Minority residents — who suffered disproportionately under the pandemic in New Jersey and nationwide — are also less likely to have easy access to immunizations and quality medical care in general.

Irvington and East Orange are predominantly home to minority residents, with populations that are 87% and 85% Black, respectively, according to U.S. census data from 2019. At least one in 10 residents in these communities is Hispanic, as many as one-third are foreign-born, and close to one in five live in poverty.

Camden’s population is more than half Hispanic, and four in 10 are Black, census data shows, while 36% live in poverty. The small community of Wallington is mostly white, with about 15% Hispanic residents, 5% Black and nearly 7% Asian, while more than four in 10 people there were born abroad.

In Lakewood, Hispanics account for nearly 13% of the community, and Blacks just 3%, while the bulk of the population is white, most of whom are Orthodox Jews. One in four residents there lives in poverty.

Vaccine efforts continue in Lakewood

Coles, the Lakewood mayor, said there is a sense of frustration in his town about how the Ocean County enclave has been the subject of regular media attention during the pandemic. At the start of the virus’ second wave in New Jersey, in October, COVID-19 cases were spiking in Lakewood, and state officials raised concerns that the infection was spreading amid the large families and religious gatherings that are central in the community’s culture.

“There’s still an awful lot of anger in the Orthodox community about the stories that targeted them early on in the pandemic,” Coles said. Despite that, efforts continue to encourage more of Lakewood’s diverse residents to get vaccinated.

“It’s a work in progress,” Coles said, but with the persistent spread of the virus and the emergence of new variants, “there’s a sense of urgency in the community.”

Limited vaccine coverage in other towns

While Lakewood and the four other communities mentioned are among those receiving special attention from state and local health officials, they are not the only New Jersey municipalities with limited vaccine coverage. A handful of smaller towns have far lower immunization rates and, in some cases, little sign of progress.

Walpack Township, a Sussex County hamlet with barely a dozen residents, reports just 15% of those older than 18 have had at least one shot, according to state data posted Friday to New Jersey’s COVID-19 dashboard, up a few points from a month ago. In Woodland Township, a rural Burlington County community with fewer than 2,000 citizens, 32% of adults have had one or more inoculation, compared to 31% a month earlier.

Two Burlington County towns adjacent to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst — New Hanover and North Hanover, with roughly 8,000 people each — appear to have shockingly low vaccination rates, with just 11% and 37% of adults, respectively, having received one shot, the state dashboard shows. But health officials said the data is misleading because many residents in the region were vaccinated at the base, which reports immunization activity to federal agencies, not the state.

“The Department is working diligently with vaccination partners in Burlington County to increase vaccination rates throughout Burlington County,” health department communications director Donna Leusner said. “The ultimate goal is to make sure that any Burlington County resident who wants a vaccine receives one.”

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