Last week amid a rocky and chaotic rollout of the nation’s coronavirus vaccination campaign, the Trump administration issued new guidelines greatly expanding vaccine eligibility to those 65 years and older.
Outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said there was no reason for states to complete vaccinating all healthcare providers before opening vaccinations to older Americans and other vulnerable populations, comparing the situation to the boarding of an airplane at an airport gate.
“You don’t wait ‘til literally every person from a group is boarded before moving on to the next,” Azar said of his efforts to eliminate a troubling bottleneck that has slowed vaccination efforts, even as more people are contracting COVID-19.
But in expanding the eligibility as vaccine supplies still remain well short of demand, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a new problem.
Everyone now wants to board the airplane at the same time.
The result has been anger and frustration in N.J. and elsewhere, as hundreds of thousands of people try to gain access to a still limited number of vaccines in a state that officials say is only receiving about 100,000 doses a week.
Indeed, with the expansion of eligibility, available appointments to get the vaccine in New Jersey are now scarce-to-nonexistent.
“The vaccine supply is still extremely limited and will be for some time,” said New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
One health expert who supported the CDC call to expand eligibility, meanwhile, warned of an even bigger problem looming. Will there be enough trained medical personnel available to administer the vaccine as more supplies become available?
“What is beginning to surface right now is an understanding that there are not enough front-line staff in terms of supporting the vaccination process to be able to get all those injections into peoples’ arms,” said Perry N. Halkitis, dean of Rutgers School of Public Health.
New Jersey, as most other states, had initially targeted healthcare workers and nursing homes for its scarce supply of vaccine. But it soon saw its vaccination numbers lagging well below many other states.
As of Friday, New Jersey ranked just 29 out of the 50 states in vaccinations administered per 100,000 people, according to the latest data from the CDC.
Similar issues were being seen in New York, which came under fire after it was disclosed that the state had to throw out vaccine doses because it did not have enough people stepping forward in the highest risk and top priority groups to get inoculated.
New Jersey health officials last week quickly adopted the new CDC guidelines, expanding vaccine eligibility to everyone over the age of 65. In addition, the state said those between 16 and 64 with specific medical conditions will also be allowed to sign up for the vaccine and included 2 million smokers, who are face health risks if they contract the virus.
Despite the long wait times for appointments created by the expansion of eligibility, Halkitis said state leaders should have re-thought the phased approach as soon as it was clear that vaccinations were lower than expected in the first eligible group.
He noted that only a third of the doses that had been available to the states nationwide was actually used, in part because a number of health workers opted not to be vaccinated.
Still, he said lack of vaccine in hand is not his biggest concern.
“The problem we have has less to do with the stock of the vaccine, than the actual person power to deliver the vaccine,” he said, referring to the need for health professionals who can administer shots.
In a speech on Friday, President-elect Joe Biden called the vaccine rollout in the United States “a dismal failure,” and announced plans to get more people vaccinated, create more places for them to get vaccinated, mobilize more medical teams to get the shots in people’s arms, increase supply, and “get it out the door as soon as possible.“
Biden said he is looking to ramp up vaccination availability in pharmacies, set up mobile clinics to get vaccines to underserved communities, while encouraging all states to expand vaccine eligibility to people 65 and older.
In the meantime, New Jersey officials said the state will continue to review the recommendations of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a group of medical and public health experts who develop recommendations on the use of vaccines.
“We may change groupings as we go forward and prepare hopefully for more vaccine,” Persichilli said.
Local journalism needs your support. Subscribe at nj.com/supporter.