CAMDEN, NJ — Shipments of frozen COVID-19 vaccines are expected to arrive at six Garden State hospitals - including Cooper University Health in Camden - in the days to come.
While preliminary, it will mark a major step on the state’s road to inoculating 70% of the adult population, 4.7 million people, in six months.
"Several NJ hospitals are pre-positioning to receive the first shipments of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. We anticipate that this first distribution will include roughly 76,000 doses," Gov. Phil Murphy said during an update Friday.
“When we talk about light at the end of the tunnel, this is real. And so what we need right now is we need a bridge from today until that better day, which is not that far forward,” he shared earlier in the week.
So far, more than 350,000 people in the state have contracted COVID-19 out of 6.2 million tests administered since the first reported case in March. Over 15,400 people have died from the virus and more than 1,800 fatalities are listed as "probable" deaths on the health department dashboard.
The other five hospitals, which have subzero freezers able to properly store the vaccines, include Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, University Hospital in Newark, Hackensack University Medical Center, Morristown Medical Center and AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City.
The New Jersey Department of Health is currently outlining a COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, simultaneously ensuring New Jerseyans that it is safe and secure to take. Murphy said the public will likely have access to a vaccine by April or May, with nursing homes and frontline/healthcare workers given priority.
The six NJ hospitals won’t be using the vaccines just yet. First the FDA must issue an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), which Pfizer is looking to have approved by Dec. 10 and Moderna by Dec. 17.
Both vaccines have efficacy rates at about 95% (by comparison the CDC rates the flu vaccines efficacy at nearly 52% as of this year). In order to work properly, Pfizer’s must be issued twice three weeks apart, and Moderna’s twice four weeks apart.
“[We're] talking about a safe vaccine that has a 90-something percent hit rate…not one but two of them beginning to have availability this month and then that rolls out in waves in the next number of months,” Murphy added.
A spokesperson for Cooper University Health declined to comment at this time.
Virtua spokesman Daniel Moise clarified that while their hospital system won’t be among the six hospitals initially receiving cold cases of vaccines, they also expect a shipment in the near future and have purchased a ultra low-temperature freezer that is able to store the doses accordingly.
Dr. Reg Blaber, Virtua’s executive vice president and chief clinical officer, said during an interview that pending an EUA, Virtua could have vaccines available for employees as early as next Friday.
“You look across the country and several hundred thousand healthcare workers have become infected and died as a result of the virus. Our health care workers put their lives on the line every day and, in order for us to be able to properly take care of the community, they need priority,” said Blabler, who has practiced in Camden for over 20 years.
Speaking on the safety of the vaccine, Blaber said he would be at the front of the line to be inoculated if he could. What’s more, he has seen the politicization of the vaccine wane considerably as the country becomes more distanced from the presidential election.
What he’s more concerned about is the interim period between now and vaccines becoming available to the public.
“There’s a lot of COVID-19 in the community… Camden County has a positivity rate over 10%, one of the highest in the state,” Blaber said.
“We’re also going to get the vaccine at about same time we get a post-Thanksgiving surge on top of a second general surge. The resources at the health system are going to be challenged,” Blaber said, noting that the hospital has gone on divert a handful of times in the last 8 to 10 weeks. “We have to be careful not to vaccinate everyone in hospitals at once. What we see from vaccine trials is people can get headaches, muscle aches, and fatigue in the 24-48 hours immediately after they get vaccinated. This is typical for any vaccine. But we do want to be mindful that we’re not creating a problem where a lot of people call out day or two after they get it.”
The governor and other officials have said during recent COVID-19 press briefings that New Jersey will be sent 260,000 doses in two batches of 130,000 around the midway point of this month.
As part of the plan presented to the national Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on Tuesday, officials announced that nursing homes will receive vaccines through CVS and Walgreens.
Dr. Nancy Messonier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases of the Centers for Disease Control, told the advisory panel that the majority of states expect to vaccinate their entire roster of health care workers in three weeks time.
By the end of January 2021, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli has previously said New Jersey anticipates receiving 1.1 million doses a month.
“It is very important that residents who are eligible get the vaccine,” said Donna Nickitas, Dean of the Rutgers University School of Nursing Camden. “We must inform and educate the public about the vaccine. This massive public awareness campaign is essential if we are going to build public confidence."
Before heading the nursing program, Nickitas served as a major in the United States Air Force Nurse Corps with 3 years active-duty service and 15 years reserve. That included experience as a Flight Nurse with the 69th Air Evacuation Squadron.
With a class of dedicated Rutgers-Camden nursing students, including 20 veterans, the school plans to participate in a statewide initiative to create a Vaccination Corps of faculty, student, and alumni - working to lend a hand to county and local hospitals based on their needs.