County Begins Vaccine Rollout As Covid Threat Stays High

By REBECCA MEHORTER
Specially Written for The Leader/Times

UPDATE January 14, 2021 11:25 a.m.:

Wednesday evening, Governor Phil Murphy announced that residents who qualify as “high risk” are now eligible to receive vaccinations. This group includes residents aged 65 years and older and residents 16–64 years old with medical conditions that “increase the risk of severe illness from the virus,” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease, down syndrome, heart conditions, obesity, sickle cell disease, smoking and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

As of 11 a.m. Thursday morning, there were no appointments available at any of the suggested sites on the New Jersey Vaccine Scheduling Site and the county’s vaccination hotline’s mailbox was full.
More information about who can get an appointment and where they can call can be found on the New Jersey Covid-19 Information Hub.

COUNTY — Union County began vaccinating individuals who fit into Phase 1A on January 7 and are offering vaccines to sworn law enforcement personnel and fire professionals, who fall into category 1B, as per Governor Phil Murphy’s statement on January 8.

“We feel we are well prepared to vaccinate,” said Sebastian D’Elia, Union County communications director.

The vaccines come as New Jersey copes with what Regional Health Officer Megan Avallone called the “tough month” of December and a potentially “very rough month” of January at the Westfield Board of Health meeting Monday.

December saw more than a quarter of all documented New Jersey Covid-19 cases, she said, and January is predicted to host the winter peak week. The John Hopkins state overview dashboard stated as of January 12 that the week with the highest recorded number of new cases was January 3 through 9, with 39,378, and that the record of daily new cases was January 5, with 7,153.

The federal vaccine rollout, which began on December 15, has public health officials struggling logistically to get the vaccines to the right people before the vaccines expire, as reported by The New York Times and other large news outlets. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that the rollout has been, in the words of Ms. Avallone, “very fragmented.”

“The difficulty is there’s no real strong advice from the federal government, so each state is really left to its own to figure out how they will distribute it to its residents,” she said in the meeting. “There are no real easy answers to give residents because the information is changing. It’s changing really, really frequently.”

For example, in New York, teachers are being vaccinated, but in New Jersey, only Phase 1A members are eligible for vaccines. The phases are a balance of professionals who are most likely to be in contact with the coronavirus and residents who are most vulnerable to unfavorable outcomes if they contract Covid-19.

Phase 1A includes healthcare professionals, long-term care workers and residents, EMS personnel and a host of others, according to the New Jersey Department of Health’s Covid-19 Vaccination Plan, which is available as a pdf online. Governor Murphy also began allowing firefighters and police officers, technically a part of 1B, to get their vaccines on January 8.

Once Phase 1A is complete, the counties will move together to 1B, which the county’s vaccination homepage describes as “persons 75 years and older as well as frontline essential workers who are in sectors essential to the functioning of society and are at a substantially higher risk of exposure to Covid-19.”

The next group, 1C, will be made up of adults 65 and over and adults with underlying medical conditions, although there may be further clarification to this group as 1A finishes up and the state moves to 1B.

Ms. Avallone said at her meeting that her best guess is that the state will move to 1B in approximately three weeks. The New Jersey Department of Health’s Covid-19 Vaccination Plan estimated there are 500,000 people eligible for Phase 1A, but the New Jersey Covid-19 Information Hub estimated there are approximately 650,000 people in the group. Although not everyone will take the vaccine, it is still a large number of people to keep track of.

Some Phase 1A members have the benefit of working in facilities where the vaccine can be directly distributed — like hospitals and clinics — and others are having the vaccine brought to them — like jails and long-term care facilities.

The county also is offering Phase 1A members the option of setting up appointments at Kean University. Mr. D’Elia said the county’s goal is “to provide vaccines to 300 people per day.” Residents who fall into Phase 1A can make appointments with the county for a vaccine at https://ucnj.org/covid19/covid-19-vaccination/. “We will only accept registrations for Phase 1A until the state allows us to proceed to the next phase,” Mr. D’Elia said. The county is working out of Kean University but “will expand from there to other parts of the county as we move into new phases,” he said.

It is unclear how many vaccines the county has received. Mr. D’Elia did not respond to the question when asked. The New Jersey Department of Health said 53,000 doses that were distributed the first week of January were “being allocated to hospitals and community sites,” but exactly where these sites are and what the breakdown is, is still unclear.

The state also is setting up “megasites” — the closest to Union County will be the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center in Edison — which “will immediately be in position to vaccinate front-line healthcare workers and then continue in a phased approach depending on the supply of vaccine to New Jersey. After these phases are complete, then the general public will be eligible for vaccination. The timing of the progression among the groups depends on the supply of vaccine to the state,” according to a December 18 press release from the New Jersey Health Department.

According to the New Jersey Covid-19 Information Hub, which is run by the New Jersey Department of Health, CVS and Walgreens are vaccinating assisted living facilities, federal senior housing and group homes after nursing home residents and staff are vaccinated.

New Jersey residents can pre-register for the vaccine at https://covidvaccine.nj.gov/, but it is unclear exactly what, where and when one is registering for. In the meantime, residents are strongly encouraged to wear masks, social distance, wash hands and avoid gatherings with people not in their immediate homes. “Residents are Covid-fatigued,” Ms. Avallone said at the board of health meeting, but Covid-19 is still a threat to the community.

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