Like many New Jerseyans, Marilyn Stark has spent hours navigating a bureaucratic maze of online portals and an inundated call center trying to secure a second COVID-19 vaccine appointment for her husband and a first shot for herself.
The lack of doses and a stumbling rollout on the national and state levels have led people like Stark and others to question whether Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal to vaccinate 4.7 million New Jerseyans within six months and usher in a return-to-normalcy is achievable.
“The vaccine will sure be lifesaving and life-changing, if you receive it,” said the 77-year-old Fort Lee resident.
A big hope among many in public health is that Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine will unclog the bottleneck by offering a single dose that is more easily transported and stored because it does not require low temperatures, unlike the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told NBC’s “Today” show that he expects Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to receive emergency authorization from the FDA “within the next week or two.”
That means it could be at a vaccination site by the end of the month. Federal officials expect Johnson & Johnson to deliver all of its 100 million doses by the end of June.
“The main takeaway is to get as many people vaccinated as possible, and J&J helps us reach many more people more quickly,” said Jennifer Horney, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Delaware.
But will it be enough to bring hospitalizations and deaths down while allowing for restrictions to be eased by late spring?
As of Wednesday, 837,225 doses have been administered in New Jersey. Under a two-dose system, New Jersey needs 9.4 million doses to be administered to meet its goal of vaccinating 4.7 million people by May or June.
Although the pace has picked up in New Jersey, so far only 146,000 people are fully vaccinated with both shots. Nationally, 6.4 million people have gotten both shots.
That pace will accelerate with Johnson & Johnson, but it still may not be enough to meet Murphy’s goal, said Corey Basch, chair of William Paterson University’s Department of Public Health.
“It is becoming more difficult to imagine meeting the goal of vaccinating 4.7 million people by May, but this increases the possibilities,” Basch said.
“Having this additional vaccine option will have a great impact because there are fewer caveats,” she said.
New Jersey will soon be adding more COVID-19 vaccination sites — including large pharmacy chains along with houses of worship — but doses will still be hard to find for the foreseeable future, Murphy said Wednesday.
New Jersey is expected to receive only 130,000 doses a week for the next three weeks from the federal government, although President Joe Biden has vowed to increase the flow of vaccines to all states.
“We know appointments are hard to come by, but please understand that this is just because we don’t have the supply to satisfy demand,” Murphy said.
CVS will begin administering a batch of 19,000 doses at 27 locations beginning next week. Rite Aid will also begin giving vaccinations on Feb. 11, but the company had no information Wednesday on which locations are participating or how many doses the chain has received.
Meanwhile, many New Jerseyans continue to struggle to get their first and second shots.
In mid-January, Murphy made more than 4 million people eligible for the vaccine — those 65 years and older, those with underlying medical conditions, and smokers — causing an enormous surge in those seeking appointments.
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The rollout has been rife with problems. Vaccines at nursing homes were delayed a week because state officials missed a deadline to get paperwork into the federal government. Many seniors and people with disabilities were effectively shut out of getting information and appointments because the state relied solely on an online portal until a call center opened on Jan. 25.
Appointments have closed up at many sites. Some providers began to turn people away. Desperate New Jerseyans have traveled 100 miles for an appointment. Others have waited on “standby lines” in the cold for hours in hopes of getting a dose at the end of the day.
Residents like Marilyn Stark have inundated the call center.
Stark was able to secure a first dose last month for her husband Stuart, 73, but not one for herself. And Stuart was not given an appointment for his second shot at the site as state protocol dictates.
“This is what the precious days left in our lives now involve: constantly searching on line for an appointment, worry that my husband’s first appointment will be for naught and constantly calling an inefficient and unresponsive hotline,” she said.
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State officials maintain that enough second doses have been set aside to administer everyone in line to receive them. They hope to get everyone’s second dose appointments squared away this week.
Marilyn Stark hopes more doses will help her score an appointment. But for now, the couple find themselves in vaccine limbo.
“In our system in New Jersey older people are pitted against younger in the rollout and everyone who doesn’t have any connections is up against a bureaucratic system where people fall through the cracks,” she said.
Scott Fallon covers the environment for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about how New Jersey’s environment affects your health and well-being, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.