by LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

To hear Gov. Phil Murphy tell it, coronavirus vaccinations at long-term care facilities throughout New Jersey are moving slowly. Way too slowly.

Twice over the last week, the governor has used his center-stage position at coronavirus press briefings to lament a snail's pace of vaccination for some of New Jersey's most COVID-vulnerable residents.

New Jersey is getting about 100,000 vaccine doses from the federal government each week — about half of the Pfizer vaccine, which requires extremely cold storage in specialized facilities, and about half of the less-difficult-to-store Moderna vaccine. Some of the Pfizer vaccine is going to hospitals, and some to a federal program that distributes vaccines to long-term care via large pharmaceutical chains — CVS and Walgreens, in New Jersey.

State Health Commissioner Judith M. Persichilli Friday, Jan. 22, estimated that about 400,000 or 450,000 doses (she used both numbers at different times) out of about 750,000 total doses New Jersey sites have on-hand (or will soon have on hand) are allocated to the federal program.

But while Murphy estimated 50 to 70 percent of the doses in possession of state-coordinated distribution sites had made their way into recipients' arms, only about 10 percent of those being distributed by the federal program had.

The rest aren't excess, Murphy said — it's just a matter of supply coming in and vaccines being administered on a rolling basis.

About 90 percent of long-term-care facilities have scheduled vaccine clinics — and federal officials say each facility will be visited three times, a few weeks apart. That's in part because a complete vaccination schedule takes two doses, the second a few weeks after the first.

The problem, Murphy said, seems to be one of manpower and time. Many clinics at long-term care facilities won't happen for several weeks, he said. The governor singled out Walgreens this week for being particularly slow-moving. Murphy said other community, county and state sites aren't having that problem.

"The issue for us is not that we need more distribution locations [or staff]," he said. "We need more doses."

The Centers for Disease Control, reached by Montclair Local Friday, declined to provide granular data on scheduling or vaccine administration on a per-facility basis. The state Department of Health referred questions to the federal government, despite Murphy and Persichilli being able to cite top-level estimates.

But Montclair Township provided the following estimates and accounts of progress in town, based on its records:

  • Family of Caring at Montclair has a Walgreens clinic scheduled for Feb. 10.
  • Montclair Care Center was visited by CVS on Dec. 28. Almost all residents and some staff received vaccinations.
  • Little Nursing Home had an on-site clinic (the township didn't say run by which pharmacy) on Jan. 2. All of the residents and "most" of the staff (a total of 37 people) were vaccinated.
  • Montclair Manor has been contacted by Walgreens, with a clinic scheduled for Jan. 30.
  • First Montclair House had a clinic run by CVS on Jan. 14. Eighty-eight residents and some home health aides were vaccinated.
  • Pine Ridge has been contacted by Walgreens and scheduled a clinic for March 1. The township was awaiting a message back from the facility to confirm if other dates were also scheduled.
  • South End Gardens Had an clinic with CVS on Jan. 17, and approximately 58 residents, and 10 staffers or caregivers were vaccinated. More clinics are scheduled for Feb. 7 and 28.

Late Friday, Walgreens also said it had been contracted for clinics at Montclair Care Center. It wasn't immediately clear from the information provided if both it and CVS had arrangements with the facility.

A spokesperson for CVS told Montclair Local by email Friday that within the next seven days, first doses at long-term care facilities would be complete "consistent with timelines established months ago."

"Also, looking at doses administered vs. allocated isn’t going to give the best idea of progress," CVS spokesperson Tara Burke said. "Allocations were based on bed count multiplied by two [accounting for staff], but occupancy is far less than bed count, and staff uptake has been low."

Instead, Burke said, clinic counts paint a more accurate picture. She said CVS had completed first-dose clinics at the 277 skilled nursing facilities with which the chain is partnering in New Jersey, for about 45K vaccinations in all. She said of the 821 New Jersey assisted living facilities with which CVS is partnering, it has administered first doses in 479 — about 20,000 doses overall. CVS will hold another 251 clinics at assisted living facilities in the coming week.

"As you can see, we are well underway and should be complete by the end of the month with administering the first dose of the vaccine in assisted living facilities," Burke said.

Walgreens' counts show that it's contracted with 93 New Jersey nursing homes, and has completed 103 clinics at them, with 16,460 vaccines administered, and another 30 clinics expected in the next week. Among 274 assigned assisted living facilities, it's conducted 102 clinics, for 8,955 vaccinations to date, and has another 81 clinics in the next week.

Murphy himself took criticism from some lawmakers and commentators for his handling of long-term care facilities in the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic. They and some health department insiders speaking to statewide media anonymously say he prioritized hospital resources over long-term care, even as it was understood elderly and medically infirm people were most susceptible to COVID-19's ravages. Murphy took particularly intense criticism for returning patients who'd tested positive to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, though the governor and his administration have cited measures intended to keep patients isolated and reduce coronavirus spread.

To date Friday, 7,698 of the state's 18,754 confirmed coronavirus fatalities happened among long-term care residents or staff.

Also Friday:

• Montclair registered its 63rd coronavirus death to date on Thursday, according to municipal figures

• The state has confirmed its first two known cases of a novel coronavirus variant first seen in the United Kingdom. The variant is believed to be more contagious, but no more deadly, than the version that's been in the United States for about a year. One case, Persichilli said, involved an Ocean County resident with no recent travel history or known exposure to others who were ill. That person exhibited symptoms on Dec. 29, was confirmed by a lab test to have coronavirus on Jan. 6, and was later confirmed by another lab to have the variant. The patient has since recovered without hospitalization. The other case was that of a young traveler who was in northern New Jersey, but Persichilli didn't say in what community. The child tested positive Jan. 11 in New York City.

• The final two of the state's six vaccine "mega-sites" have opened — one in Atlantic City, and another at the Meadowlands in Bergen County. While the latter is only about 20 minutes from Montclair, for now, it's available by appointment only, and only to the same groups eligible through the rest of the state (which include long-term care residents and staff, first-responders and certain other essential workers, those over 65 and those with certain serious medical conditions). Eventually, each site should be able to vaccinate about 3,000 to 5,000 people daily.