CAMDEN, NJ — A statewide plan to distribute a coronavirus vaccine, or vaccines, is not set in stone despite most officials pointing to next spring as the time the general public will have access. 

Anthony Minniti, the pharmacist in charge at Bell Pharmacy in Camden, knows a vaccine rollout will be a matter of trust as much as logistics. 

A new poll from Axios-Ipsos released Tuesday found that 51% of Americans will take a coronavirus vaccine immediately once it’s available. It’s a steady increase from two months ago but a far cry of what’s needed for the NJ Department of Health to reach its goal: vaccinating 70% of adults in 6 months.  

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“First we were hearing a lot of concern about access. So we acted swiftly to get in contact with the CDC and the State Department of Health to ensure that we would be able to make this vaccine available to the residents of Camden,” Minniti told TAPinto Camden, noting that it expects to have several thousand doses available by early March. “But we also received a lot of questions regarding the safety of the vaccine and unfortunately political rhetoric has poisoned the whole rollout.”

The virus, currently in its resurgence nationwide, has led to more than 18,000 positive tests in Camden County as of Friday. This week, the death toll surpassed 600. Camden City, a hotspot for the virus countywide, is inching toward 100 deaths and 5,000 cases alone. 

Minniti hopes Bell Pharmacy can present familiar faces to wary residents concerned that they or their family members may be putting themselves at further risk by becoming vaccinated. 

He started working for his grandfather at Doganiero's Pharmacy in 1984. Later, he graduated from Philadelphia College of Pharmacy in 1993. In 1997, he said his family purchased Bell Pharmacy - which has been at the corner of Kaighn and Haddon Ave. in Parkside since 1931. 

Today, he runs the pharmacy with his sister: President/CFO of Bell Pharmacy, Marian Morton.

“Bell Pharmacy will be a central access point for the vaccine. You don't have to worry about going out to Pennsauken, you don't have to worry about standing in lines a mile long,” Minniti added. “Maybe it will motivate other pharmacies in the city to follow our lead.”

Seeking to dispel some of the wariness residents have in a vaccine, Minniti said the expediency of which it was created has to do with advances in medical science and the pros of “Operation Warp Speed.”

In May, the public–private partnership was launched by the U.S. government to help create and quickly dispense COVID-19 vaccines. Minniti said it allowed for the FDA to review vaccines as they were developed, thus allowing a stock of vaccines to be manufactured, and simply await final approval before first responders and the general public had access.

That Pfizer and Moderna would be able to develop vaccines effectively with over 90% of trial participants in such a short time frame was not guaranteed at the time the operation was put in place. But ultimately paid off, Minniti noted.  

“To be clear, this isn't a government-made vaccine. These vaccines have been developed by very reputable, multinational companies, who don't just make vaccines, they make a whole line of medications and therapies that have been shown to be to be safe and effective,” Minniti continued. “Just because the government's paying for this doesn't mean it's a government vaccine.”

Besides Pfizer and Moderna, he expects others including Johnson & Johnson to also develop its own version of a vaccine.  

But not everyone should feel the need to immediately head out to get vaccinated on the first day it's available, he said.

“One of the positives, if you can say there's a positive, to the surge cases in Camden city and the county in general, is that thousands of individuals have been exposed, probably in excess of 98% of them have gotten through the infection, are healthy again and now carry the antibodies,” said Minniti. “That's probably not who should be coming to get the vaccine first. We want to make sure there's enough for the people who need it: the elderly, people who are immunocompromised, have diabetes, a pre-existing condition...those who are at risk.”

Minniti reiterated that the state, county and area medical institutions will of course announce their own initiatives for distributing the vaccine, first prioritizing medical workers and first responders. For their part, Bell Pharmacy plans to have its own supply - encouraging vulnerable residents to either make an appointment or walk-up. More details will be announced.

Bell Pharmacy has not only been key in re-ensuring residents that it will have the vaccine on hand, it has provided assistance to medical services and conducted coronavirus testing throughout the pandemic - partnering with local organizations in the process. 

The pharmacy operates 13 medical vehicles through Amstar Medical Transportation. Minniti said as talks continue, he hopes soon to have more news on Amstar becoming the primary medical transport service in the city. 

“We’re focused on doing transports in Camden in volume. Typically, the way it works now is all the transporters in the state are all coming in and out of Camden at different times and what that can result in a patient not getting picked up because something more attractive comes along. It's difficult to just do one in Camden, one Cherry Hill, one more Marlton. Whenever that happens, typically, you're more difficult, more challenging urban stops are what they drop off the list, and then that patient winds up stuck. So we wanted to adopt an approach where we were just running within the city all day.”

To learn more about Bell Pharmacy and be up to date on vaccine availability click here.

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