What’s NJ’s Vaccine Message? We Hear Your Frustration, But Better Times Are Ahead

by Lilo H. Stainton, NJ Spotlight
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This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Click here for the original article, written by Lilo H. Stainton.

Please have patience. We know it’s been a stressful year. But better times are ahead.

This was the overarching message from New Jersey health officials during an NJ Spotlight News virtual roundtable, “Vaccinating New Jersey,” which on Thursday attracted hundreds of viewers anxious to learn when and where they could get immunized against the coronavirus.

The event began with a brief message from New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, who has led the state’s response. It then featured a panel discussion with state COVID-19 adviser Dr. Eddy Bresnitz; AARP New Jersey advocacy director Ev Liebman; union leader Milly Silva, the executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare East; and Barry Ostrowsky, president and CEO of RWJBarnabas Health, one of the state’s largest health care systems. (The author moderated the event.)

In her remarks, Persichilli outlined the state’s initiative to vaccinate some 4.7 million eligible adults, reviewed who is now eligible and noted the more than 200 immunization sites open to the public — a network she said will continue to grow once federal supplies increase.

“Be patient. I know it’s hard to be patient under the circumstances (and) people have been under a lot of stress over the last year,” said Bresnitz, who previously served as the state epidemiologist. “People are impatient, but it’s not surprising that they’re impatient,” he said, given the restrictions and isolation people have faced since March.

The following are edited excerpts from the event:

Persichilli on the virus in general: “We’ve learned a great deal over the past year and our understanding of the virus continues to evolve every day, such as the variants that we’re dealing with now, seeing it in the United States and Britain, in Brazil and in South Africa. Suffice it to say, we do learn something about this novel virus every single day.”

Persichilli on vaccine supply and goals: “With every vaccination given, we come closer to the light at the end of the tunnel where we can move beyond this epidemic. We are on our way to a better future. The wide-scale vaccination campaign is a massive undertaking. Scarcity of vaccine right now has challenged all of our states, including New Jersey.

“With a new (presidential) administration in place, we are certainly hopeful, and we have already received some word that our vaccine supply will increase slightly and continue to increase over the next several months… [The] overall goal of our plan is to vaccinate 70% of the eligible adult population in a six-month period when vaccine becomes available, widely available. That equates to between 70,000 and 80,000 vaccinations a day. Or maybe about 4,500 to 5,500 vaccinations in every county a day.”

Persichilli on demand for the vaccine: “There are currently many more people seeking vaccinations than there are appointments across the state. We continue to have a tremendous imbalance between demand and supply. More vaccine, however, will be arriving, we believe, in the coming weeks. Additionally, and hopefully, manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson will likely be authorized in the coming weeks, adding to the vaccine supply.”

Bresnitz on the numbers: “We were getting a little bit over 100,000 doses a week. I think the commissioner mentioned that we’re now going up to 130,000 a week. And that includes for both the first and the second dose. We currently have registered in our state site over 2 million people. And if you look at those who are eligible currently… we have over 4 million people right now who are eligible by those criteria. So, clearly the supply cannot meet the demand.

“We’re doing about 22,000, 23,000 (vaccinations) a day right now, not because we couldn’t do more; we are definitely set up. We have enough (sites) to handle much more vaccine. It’s really related to the limited supply coming out of the manufacturers. And having been in industry, I can assure you that the manufacturers would love to basically make more vaccine. But making a vaccine is a complicated process.”

Bresnitz on the registration system: “I want to point out that the online registration system that we have now, that has now over 2 million registrants in the space of about three weeks, did not exist at all a month or two ago; it was built from scratch.

“It started off slowly, but it will have a lot of functionality as we move along and we fix the bugs in the system. There are other states that don’t have a central registration system at all — for example, our neighbor next door, Pennsylvania; nor do they have a call center. So we’re way ahead of the game from that perspective. And we’re still very early in the distribution of vaccine.”

Liebman on seniors’ experience: “We have heard from our members that, yes, perhaps the program in our nursing homes through CVS and Walgreens has been a little slower than we might have liked. But overall, at this point, we are hearing that it is working, that the sites are being scheduled, the vaccines are being provided.

“I would say for the older residents of New Jersey who are not in those programs the experience, as we saw on the video, hasn’t been going as well. There’s a lot of frustration out there, people spending hours and days on websites. And we are hearing that frustration loud and clear. The governor has talked about how we’re building the ship as we’re sailing it. And I think that building continues.”

Liebman on access for people who are homebound: “We have to incorporate into our plan more opportunities for people to access vaccines who cannot go to vaccine sites themselves. We have a number of frail, homebound elderly who aren’t able to travel. We need to put systems in place so that we can bring vaccines to the home where necessary. I know that that is something that the department is working on.”

Ostrowsky on racism and vaccine hesitancy: “We still have many health care workers who have not availed themselves of the opportunity to get vaccinated, although they were invited first — and, frankly, had the most convenient opportunity to get it. And as we all know, many of those health care workers are disproportionately people of color and come from vulnerable communities…

“If you’re a person of color, particularly Black, your skepticism about the health care delivery system is correct. You have every right to be skeptical. There was everything from experimentation to the same disproportionate (health) outcomes that we talk about but haven’t yet fixed. So, you are rightful in your concern about taking the vaccine. We have to address that. We can’t simply try to say, ‘forget that and get the vaccine.’”

Ostrowsky on equity: “There has to be a program to, in fact, make it seamless and available to those in our vulnerable communities; that’s equity. You can’t treat everybody equally, because that’s not equity. And so investing in the special needs of people who need to be able to get to the vaccine is something we’re focusing on. … the frustration is you can activate all that and not have enough supply to vaccinate the people…

“But if we’re not guided by equity and if we’re not paying attention to vulnerable communities, we are not doing the right thing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a simple fact.”

Silva on the ‘new normal’: “So there’s no returning back to the old normal. I think that we are, as a communal society, going to have to reimagine what our work looks like, what it looks like for us to address issues regarding health care disparities in terms of access, as well as how people are treated. (Also) how we think about the work that people do and the value that we ascribe to it and what it means in terms of the different choices that we have and how we prioritize health care, essential work, (and) investing in that workforce that provides it.

“And for all of us who are consumers of health care and also the services that are so critical to our day-to-day survival, of the people who bring us our groceries every day — what does it mean in terms of our being able to honor that work, not just in words, but also in deeds and in policy changes?”

For more information on the state’s vaccination program, go to www.covid19.nj.gov/vaccine

Information is also available by telephone, at 855-568-0545. Live operators should be available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week, to assist callers directly in English or Spanish. Information can also be provided in more than 200 languages, state officials said.

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