Last month, as nurses in New Jersey were administering the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli deflated some of the optimism of the moment by warning that vaccinations would be slow.
“We expect the demand for the vaccine will outpace the supply,” Persichilli said in late December.
That turned out to be a bit of an understatement.
So far New Jersey has administered at least the first dose of the vaccine to just 3.1% of people in the state, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of Friday evening. That’s slightly lower than the national average of 3.2% and lower than about half of all states.
Public health experts say that New Jersey’s narrow, phased approach to vaccinations has needlessly slowed the rollout.
“The phases are not working; they’re hugely problematic,” said Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers University School of Public Health. “We have to have phases, but we want porous phases.”
Halkitis likened the phased approach to vaccines in the state to a sinking ship where one lifeboat has to be filled before people can start filling the next. “It’s going to end in death,” he said.
But even as they criticize the state’s vaccination plan, health experts acknowledge that a more methodical approach is preferable to what’s been done in other states, like Florida, which made national news over the past week as a more wide-open strategy to vaccinations led to long lines, Eventbrite scheduling and reports of folks from out of state getting shots.
Florida’s strategy was to open vaccinations to its large population of people over 65 years old — a group of more than 4 million, equal to about half of New Jersey’s entire population — even though the state only had a tiny fraction of shots available for those people. Predictably, confusion ensued.
“The Florida rollout bothers me, in what I’m seeing, the idea of older adults lining up and waiting all night is upsetting for lots of reasons,” said Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan. “Nobody should be doing that.”
Jared Moskowitz, director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, told the Orlando Sentinel that a lack of supplies and information from the federal government is to blame for the state’s vaccination issues, not an issue with planning or rollout at the state level.
But even with all Florida’s problems getting shots in arms, the state has still administered vaccines to 3.6% of its population, a larger proportion than New Jersey has managed.
“I can see the sense in vaccinating as many people as quickly as possible, even if they don’t fall into the 1A, 1B, 1C categories that were initially recommended,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory board.
But a more efficient vaccine rollout is somewhere between New Jersey and Florida, experts say.
“I believe that somewhere between a very conservative approach and a vaccine free-for-all there is probably the right approach,” said Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist at Montclair State University. “I do think that New Jersey has taken an overly cautious and conservative approach thus far and it has resulted in a very slow rollout that we are only now starting to see pick up pace.”
Silvera added that state officials need to expand hours for vaccinations and train more people to deliver shots, so that it’s as easy as possible for people to get vaccinated.
The slower than expected pace of vaccinations, both in New Jersey and across the country, has added to tensions as the coronavirus conflagration continues spreading in the United States, regularly setting daily records for deaths. Models now predict that in a few months more than 500,000 people will have been killed by COVID-19 in this country.
New Jersey health officials on Friday reported 5,490 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 67 additional deaths. The state has now lost 20,320 residents in the COVID-19 outbreak — 18,229 confirmed deaths and 2,091 considered probable. New Jersey has already announced 1,231 confirmed deaths this month, following 1,890 in December.
On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced the first major expansion to the state’s vaccine program, opening up shots for people 65 years old and over and people with conditions that put them at a greater risk of health complications related to COVID-19. That decision was based on changing federal guidelines and the expectation of more doses becoming available shortly.
“It is somewhat if not largely based on the anticipation — not guarantee, but anticipation — of increased deliveries of vaccines as the federal government will no longer be holding back doses, we are confident in taking these steps,” Murphy said Wednesday. “We have set the infrastructure we need to do this job and we are now ready to begin to ramp up our vaccination efforts exponentially.”
That infrastructure includes a planned 259 vaccination sites, of which six are so-called mega sites. The state has 165 total sites open as of Wednesday, Murphy said.
More than 1 million people have already registered to be vaccinated and the state hopes to administer shots to 70% of its adult population, around 4.7 million people, by May. People are asked to register on the state’s website and then make an appointment at one of the vaccine sites.
Halkitis said the expansion of vaccinations announced this week will help New Jersey, but added that he’d like to see it expanded further.
“I think we will look better over time,” Halkitis said. “I think you do need the rules otherwise it becomes a free-for-all. 65 and immunocompromised (people) is a step in the right direction, but I would add teachers and other frontline workers.”
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Payton Guion may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.