Vaccine Woes Should Inform Future Response Plans, Experts Say

Posted on January 29, 2021

As officials urge New Jerseyans to remain patient through the stops and starts of the state’s Coronavirus vaccination campaign, experts and advocates agree on one thing: The lessons learned ought to lead to system changes.

“There’s no returning back to the old normal,” Milly Silva, executive vice president of 1199 SEIU, said in a virtual roundtable hosted Jan. 28 by NJ Spotlight News.

In the panel discussion, “Vaccinating New Jersey: The Path to Our Post-COVID Future,” state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli outlined the mass immunization infrastructure New Jersey is assembling as it waits for its vaccine supplies to increase.

New Jersey hopes to immunize 70 percent of the eligible adult population, or 4.7 million residents, within six months’ time, Persichelli said.

The supply of vaccines New Jersey has received to date is far below what the state’s 200-plus vaccine sites could be delivering each day, but the numbers should begin to inch up over the next three weeks and keep increasing after that.

As Persichelli spoke, hundreds of messages filled the chat room of the livestreamed discussion among health, aging and workforce experts. Most of the complaints were about the state’s overwhelmed telephone hotline and website, and the difficulty of securing appointments.

“Be patient,” was the advice offered by Barry H. Ostrowsky, president of RWJBarnabas Health.
“I wish there had been a playbook for this virus and certainly a playbook for the vaccination, but there wasn’t,” Ostrowsky said.

While vaccinations are underway at the state’s long-term-care centers, older adults outside those settings have experienced a lot of confusion and frustration in trying to find out when and where they can receive one, said Evelyn Liebman, director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey.

Liebman expressed concern that the state hasn’t formulated a plan to deliver vaccines to older, disabled and non-driving adults who won’t be able to get to vaccine locations, referring to that dilemma as “the part of the ship we’re still building.”

In a Jan. 20 call with age-friendly community leaders and local provider groups, New Jersey Health Department officials said they were going to work with local officials and organizations to set up mobile vaccination clinics at senior apartment buildings and other congregate settings, as well as to try to identify isolated residents who may need to be immunized in their homes.

In response, community leaders in our alliance are working to identify and assist older adults who need help obtaining a vaccine, while also logging examples of the many ways the state’s health delivery system could benefit from using an age-friendly lens to design response efforts in times of future crisis.

As the pace of vaccination increases, it will be important that state health officials take what is learned from its pandemic response efforts to improve upon the state’s systems of caring for the most vulnerable in the population, panel participants said.

In addition to homebound populations, that includes the underpaid and depleted direct-care workforce, people living in substandard housing, and those who are food insecure – all circumstances that have dramatically worsened during the pandemic.

“We can’t stop with vaccinations,” Ostrowsky said. “We can get people vaccinated, but if we stop there we will miss a huge opportunity.”