By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

New Jersey officials say they’re ready to expand their coronavirus vaccine rollout efforts, as more people register to be vaccinated.

But that all depends on how much vaccine the state receives from the federal government, and so far, those shipments have been limited in size, Gov. Phil Murphy said Jan. 15 — “and it’s becoming apparent that we are ready but they are not. A Washington Post story the same day said the federal government's claimed reserve of doses for second shots simply doesn't exist — putting in question how much vaccine states will get in the coming weeks. 

“We just cannot be caught flat-footed when we get the supplies out of the feds,” Murphy said.

New Jersey is expected to have more than 200 vaccine distribution sites, and 169 of them are currently up and running, including four mega-sites in Gloucester, Burlington, Morris and Middlesex counties. Essex County has a vaccine site at the former Kmart building in West Orange.

Beyond that: Montclair officials working with seniors say a major hurdle remains — connecting those who don’t have access to technology with the opportunity to get vaccinated.

Because of limited supply, the priority is to vaccinate those who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, Murphy said, and that number includes teachers, grocery workers, transportation workers, and other essential workers who fall into the current eligibility guidelines. 

The state is in the first few stages of its plan to make coronavirus vaccine available, first to healthcare workers and residents or staff of congregate living facilities such as nursing homes, in what it calls Phase 1A. Earlier this month, the state entered Phase 1B, making vaccines available to groups including first-responders such as police and firefighters, as well as those considered at high-risk. On Jan. 13, Gov. Phil Murphy announced seniors ages 65 and are eligible to get vaccinated as well. 

Within hours of the governor’s announcement on Jan. 13, many state and county vaccination sites were fully booked, giving those trying to schedule instructions to come back later, or letting them register to be notified when slots open up.

Availability to seniors

Susan Craig, the new chair of Montclair’s Senior Citizens Advisory Council, said communication is a significant problem for seniors who don’t have internet access or smart phones. And it has been a problem since the start of the pandemic, she said.

“We are aware that data show that there are areas in Montclair where residents lack both the modern devices and internet service to allow them to receive news and the resources to benefit from existing programs to say nothing about new opportunities. How will someone without an email address be able to put themselves on the county's vaccination list?” she asked.

Murphy on Friday said 310,595 vaccines had been administered as of that day, up 23,000 from the previous day. Of those, 37,079 were second doses. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines currently being distributed require two-dose regimens. 

The National Association of Chain Drug Stores has also called on federal and state health officials to let pharmacies play a larger role in vaccinating the public. The Federal Pharmacy Program is currently being used to administer vaccines to residents and staff of long-term care facilities in clinics held by CVS and Walgreens. 

On Jan. 14, CVS and Omnicare held a vaccine clinic for seniors at First Montclair House, an apartment building that provides HUD-subsidized senior housing on Walnut Street. 

Murphy has cautioned that vaccine demand is going to far outstrip supply for the foreseeable future. However, the governor said it is hoped and expected that President Elect Joe Biden administration’s will release larger supplies of vaccine once his administration takes office. 

Katie York, the township’s director of senior services, has not yet returned requests for comment on this week, seeking information about resources available to connect seniors with access. Essex County spokesperson Anthony Puglisi said seniors may make appointments through the county’s online portal or call 973-877-8456. 

LifeLong Montclair and the Division of Senior Services have been working to arrange rides through a ride-share service to the Essex County vaccine site in West Orange, but Craig said it is difficult to reach seniors who don’t have internet or cell phones. 

“This is a problem that affects more than just Montclair and needs to be addressed by the County. Planning must consider that information, especially at this time, is a vital resource and like many aspects revealed during the pandemic, it has become a matter of equity. Social workers and planners need to provide a means for all Essex County residents to both have equal access to information and act on that information,” Craig said. 

‘People are anxious’

Murphy called for an end to divisive attitudes over who deserves to get the vaccine — criticizing media reports and commentary focusing on the fact that smokers are now eligible, as members of a group considered high-risk, while some other groups remain shut out.

“Understanding everyone’s desire to get vaccinated as soon as possible, we understand people are anxious,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.

Because New Jersey receives only 100,000 vaccine doses each week, only that number of people can get vaccinated in a given week, she said.

Persichilli said the state Department of Health can change the groupings as needed, based on current guidance from the CDC. 

“This is a moment that requires big thinking and bold action,” Murphy said. 

The latest numbers

Officials reported 5,490 new confirmed cases on Jan. 15, compared with 5,967 on Jan. 14, bringing the total to 555,299.

Another 67 deaths were reported, compared to 94 on Jan. 14, bringing the total to 18,229. The number of deaths from probable cases sood at 2,091.

The positivity rate stood at 9.63 percent, compared to 13.53 percent on Jan. 13, and the rate of transmission — an estimate of how many people each person with the virus infects — stood at 1.11, up from 1.10 on Jan. 13. 

Hospitals reported 3,543 total patients, including 626 in critical care and 438 on ventilators, on Jan. 14, compared to 3,639 total patients, including 644 in critical care and 457 on ventilators, on Jan. 13. The overall hospital numbers were down for two days in a row, Murphy said, and critical care was down for three days in a row.

Another 59 in-hospital deaths were reported. 

Essex County reported 552 new cases and six new deaths, compared to 599 new cases and six new deaths on Jan. 14. The totals stood at 53,672 cases and 2,214 deaths.

Montclair health officials reported 19 new cases, compared to 10 new cases on Jan. 13. The total stood at 1,489. The number of deaths remained at 62.