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Long Branch officials are trying to get city employees and the underserved population vaccinated. They are going door-to-door and have created a vaccine clinic at the Bucky James Community Center. Asbury Park Press

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ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS - Richard Stryker, one of the owners of Bayshore Pharmacy here, has spent thousands on refrigeration systems and technology and has stood at the ready to inject the COVID vaccine into the arms of his customers.

Now all he needs is the vaccine.

"We sit and we wait," Stryker said.

Stryker is among a group of health providers at the Shore who say they could help inoculate residents quickly, if only they had access to a steady supply of vaccines.

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They say they have built-in advantages to the state- and county-operated mega sites, not the least of which is proximity to their customers.

The Murphy administration has been working with pharmacies and doctors' offices to make the vaccine as readily available as the flu shot, one official said, but it has been hamstrung by tight supply and strict storage requirements. 

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There are hints that supply is beginning to ease. In fact, some local New Jersey pharmacies received their first shipment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week.

Still, observers said, the vaccine program's mega-sites are less than inviting. And the program would be more effective with neighborhood pharmacists and physicians playing a bigger role.

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"The familiarity and location of the local pharmacy is preferred for many more people than was anticipated," said Corey Basch, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health at William Paterson University in Wayne. "I'm not sure the government predicted this preference would be so apparent."

The Murphy administration has said it wants to vaccinate two-thirds of the state's adult population by the summer, enough to create widespread immunity. To reach that goal, it would need to get another 3.3 million New Jerseyans 18 or older fully vaccinated in the next three months.

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For now, the state has fully vaccinated about 1.5 million residents, or 21% of its adult population, according to figures compiled by the Asbury Park Press.

Monmouth County is slightly ahead of the state's pace. About 23% of its adult population has been fully vaccinated, according to the data.

Ocean County is slightly behind. About 19.7% of its adult population has been fully vaccinated, the data shows.

Inoculating the population isn't easy. Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have developed three different vaccines, each with different requirements for how to store and administer them. 

Local health providers, however, said they could help the state pick up the pace.

In addition to Bayshore Pharmacy, Stryker is an owner of Middletown Family Pharmacy. When the vaccines began deliver nationwide last December, he prepared for what he envisioned would be an important part in combatting the virus.

He bought a freezer needed to store the Moderna vaccine and a refrigerator needed to store the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He took the temperature readings of both and reported them to the Health Department. He created makeshift exam rooms for patients to get shots. He trained his staff on how to administer the vaccine.

All told, he said, he spent about $6,000 to $7,000 between the two stores.

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"The original call was for all hands on deck," Stryker said. "'Let's get this thing done. We'll get the vaccine out as far and as wide as possible. And let's get the entire country vaccinated as fast as possible."

Other health providers are frustrated, too.

IMA, which has seven primary care and two urgent care offices in Monmouth County, has begun to see another wave of COVID cases, said Dr. Roger Thompson, a partner.

He hoped his offices soon would be included in the vaccination program.

The reason: "Ease of access," he said. "It's the biggest one. We give out thousands of flu vaccines a year and we do it as a drive-thru. Patients don't even have to get out of their car."

"So those who are most vulnerable — the elderly and those who aren't so mobile — it's very effective for them instead of having to walk across a big parking lot or getting into one of these mega-sites."

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Indeed, the state and counties have created so-called mega-sites, sprawling, makeshift centers that can deliver thousands of doses a day.

While some have praised the sites' efficiency, the centers come with built-in obstacles. Residents, for example, need to navigate computer systems to sign up, arrange for transportation and brave long lines and big crowds.

"Those have been consistent concerns expressed by our members," said Ev Liebman, director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey, an advocacy group representing seniors. Expanding vaccine sites into neighborhoods "is a high priority and we hope to see that happen soon."

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Dr. David Adinaro, New Jersey's deputy commissioner for public health services, said in an interview that 750 locations in the state are providing vaccinations and another 1,700 have completed paperwork to join them.

The Murphy administration, he said, wanted to get the vaccine to neighborhood health providers as quickly as it could, but there have been impediments.

Among them: The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines needed cold storage units that weren't widely in use. Pfizer's minimum order of one tray, or 1,170 doses, was relatively large. And smaller health providers needed technology to input data.

"We want to get the vaccine into people's neighborhoods as soon as we can," he said. "The two vaccines were not ideal for that."

The state's distribution program on its face made sense, said Basch, the William Paterson professor. It needed to deliver two doses of vaccines that were in short supply as rapidly as it could.

But the logistics plan overlooked a key component: residents' ability to navigate the system.

The mega-site "is not what anyone is accustomed to," she said.

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A more familiar routine might not be far behind. Johnson & Johnson has begun distributing its vaccine, which requires just one dose and is more easily stored.

Brian Pinto, owner of Tiffany Natural Pharmacy in Westfield and board president for the Garden State Pharmacy Owners trade group, said he received 100 doses of the J&J vaccine for the first time Tuesday and began going through his wait list of 2,700 people.

Off to the races? Adinaro wasn't sure. As of Tuesday, the state didn't know how many J&J doses were on the way next week, he said, making planning tricky.

At Bayshore Pharmacy, Stryker said he was encouraged to hear that his counterparts were finally receiving shipments. But he still hadn't heard from the state.

"If it’s finally coming through, that would be great," Stryker said. "I’ll take three months late rather than never or not at all.”

Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at mdiamond@gannettnj.com.

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