What we know about NJ's coronavirus vaccine distribution plan
Reporters from the USA TODAY NETWORK Northeast discuss what the region got right and wrong during the first coronavirus spike and where we go from here. NorthJersey.com
With a coronavirus vaccine likely to be ready within months, New Jersey unveiled a 182-page distribution plan Monday that shows who may get vaccinated first, and possible sites where residents can get inoculated.
But certain answers will depend on the federal government, as well as on which vaccine is ultimately approved first. Of the four companies that are in late-stage clinical trials in the United States — AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer — all but Johnson & Johnson require two doses. In addition, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would require subfreezing storage temperatures that present a logistical challenge, and Gov. Phil Murphy didn't say whether New Jersey had enough ultra-cold freezers to do the job.
New Jersey's goal is to vaccinate 70% of adults in the state who are not pregnant within six months, or about 81,000 people a day, five days a week, said Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli. Put into perspective, about 50% of New Jersey's population got the flu vaccine last flu season, though about 70% of those doses went to children, Persichilli said.
The state will most likely prioritize health care workers, including long-term care workers, ICU staff, dentists, home health providers and mortuary staff, according to New Jersey's vaccination plan, which it shared with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Oct. 16.
Next would be people older than 65, those with underlying medical conditions, people who live in crowded or group settings such as prisons or psychiatric hospitals, and essential workers who can't socially distance. That could include certain health care workers, emergency and law enforcement personnel, food packaging and distribution workers, teachers and school staff, and child care workers, according to the state plan.
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But it's unclear how many doses New Jersey will receive from the federal government, and whether that will cover everyone in these vulnerable categories. The Department of Health estimated that New Jersey has about 4.3 million people in priority populations, according to its vaccination plan. If a two-dose vaccine is approved first, New Jersey would need 1 million doses just to cover the state's approximately 500,000 health care workers.
The state is also recruiting long-term care facilities to take part in a "federally supported distribution process via pharmacies," the Department of Health wrote to the CDC, though it didn't include additional details. Close to half of the state's more than 14,000 deaths due to COVID-19 were among long-term care residents.
Despite these unknowns, Murphy said, "I am proud today to be able to say these four words: We will be ready."
But minutes later, he urged the federal government to provide the states with funding for a vaccination program, saying, "Let me be clear: If we do not receive any additional funds, achieving a 70% vaccination rate will take many years, if it happens at all."
While Murphy did not give the precise amount needed, he said the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the Association of Immunization Managers asked Congress for $8.1 billion to support states across the country.
"We are calculating what it will cost for the actual administration...which may be 10 individuals for every vaccine site including vaccine coordination, registration, administration of the vaccine, observation, data entry and follow-up," Persichilli said. "We have not finalized a number."
Story continues below gallery. Check out potential vaccine sites below:
Murphy said his three goals were to "provide equitable access to a vaccine, achieve maximum community protection ... [and build] public trust in not just a COVID-19 vaccine, but the vaccines that can protect residents from other potentially debilitating and deadly illnesses."
The first phase of vaccines will likely be delivered by local health departments, federally qualified health centers, hospitals, medical-clinical and retail pharmacies, Murphy said. Later on, static and mobile urgent care sites, large primary care clinics and physicians' practices will also help vaccinate, and each county may set up its own large-scale vaccination site, according to the Department of Health plan.
If a two-dose vaccine is first approved, New Jersey will use its Immunization Information System, which tracks certain vaccine doses across the state, to remind residents to come back and get a second shot. The database, which includes about 5 million patients and more than 73 million immunization records, is being upgraded to support an increase in records, according to the state's plan.
The state also plans to coordinate with community health workers, schools and large employers to remind people to return for a second dose.
New Jersey will work with health care providers and "key community influencers" to share vaccine information in "clear and concise language, recognizing the needs of our multi-cultural and multi-lingual residents, and in terms that are easy to understand within individual communities," Murphy said.
He also noted the potential hurdle presented by the anti-vaccination movement.
"We cannot let the online rumors and social-media-driven conspiracy theories jeopardize our ability to build statewide immunity against this deadly virus," Murphy said. "We know from public polling that there is already growing skepticism of a vaccine — and in the face of this virus, that skepticism could prove to be as deadly as the virus itself."
The state hopes to avoid mistakes it made in 2009 with the H1N1 swine flu vaccine campaign and has reviewed after-action reports, according to the COVID-19 vaccine plan.
A decade ago, New Jersey had issues with H1N1 vaccine shipments not arriving on time, or lacking the needed supplies, such as receiving multiple vials and needles but no syringes.
The state did not consistently report who received a vaccine or track other helpful metrics, such as where supplies were delivered. Although 2.5 million doses were shipped to New Jersey, the state recorded administering only 1.1 million doses through April 2010.
New Jersey didn't have enough trained staff or proper funding, and health providers that didn't have experience with the tracking system had trouble ordering more of the vaccines.
Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s legislature and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.