Special to TAPinto. This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

NJ SPOTLIGHT-- COVID-19 immunizations will continue at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in New Jersey thanks to changes in a federal program geared to make it easier for new residents and initially hesitant staff to get vaccinated.

Tens of thousands of vulnerable residents and frontline caregivers have already been inoculated against the coronavirus through the initial federal partnership program, under which the CVS and Walgreens chains organized multiple vaccination clinics at hundreds of nursing homes, assisted living sites and other congregate-living facilities around the state. Since January, the two companies have hosted more than 3,000 clinics and administered some 269,400 doses, according to state figures.

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State officials announced Monday that the federal government will now supply COVID-19 vaccines directly to the specialty drugstores that regularly work with long-term care sites across the nation to ensure that on-site immunizations continue. Some nursing home operators and elder-care advocates had questioned what would happen when the initial vaccine program was phased out at the end of March.

“All of the long-term care facilities will be covered on an ongoing basis,” state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday.

COVID-19 cases and related deaths at long-term care facilities nationwide have dropped dramatically in recent months amid the vaccine rollout. The death rate at residences in New Jersey declined 95% between early January and the end of February alone, according to state data.

Infections among staff have also plummeted at facilities in the state, falling after an initial high of more than 1,000 cases in the last week of May, then returning to a second, lesser peak of 683 cases in early December, before dropping to 115 cases for the week that ended April 4, 2021, figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.

Many nursing home residents — elderly and medically frail individuals who are especially susceptible to illness and death from COVID-19 — were eager to get vaccinated in New Jersey and nationwide. Nearly 78% of those living in long-term care facilities here are now fully immunized, according to the state Department of Health.

Hesitant staff members

But the workforce has been more hesitant. Despite offers of cash, gifts like computer tablets or other incentives, just over 51% of the state’s long-term care staff have been vaccinated so far, the DOH said.

“Hopefully more employees will want to get vaccinated and … their independent pharmacies will take care of that,” Persichilli said, noting that the modified federal program can also accommodate facilities that have had active outbreaks and need follow-up vaccination efforts.

The three state-run veterans homes, several of which were particularly hard-hit by the virus, have achieved higher vaccination rates, Persichilli noted Monday. She said the facilities — in Paramus, Menlo Park and Vineland — have immunized nine out of 10 residents and nearly 70% of staff, who are public employees.

While vaccine hesitancy has been less of a concern than state officials initially predicted, Gov. Phil Murphy has identified the lagging rate of vaccinations among long-term care staffers as an obstacle in the effort to move beyond the pandemic.

On Monday he said he did not believe vaccine opponents — who came out in force in late 2019 to challenge a push by lawmakers to expand flu vaccine requirements in schools — or general hesitancy among New Jerseyans would derail the state’s effort to inoculate 4.7 million people, or 70% of those eligible, by the end of June.

“There’s going to be some folks [that don’t want to get vaccinated], clearly, but that’s not going to be as big a number as we feared,” he said. “I think the biggest hole… continues to be long-term care staff,” Murphy said. “I know Judy [Persichilli] and team are pounding away on that, but that’s something that’s got to change.”

Some improvement seen

Andy Aronson, president and CEO of the Health Care Association of New Jersey, which represents long-term care facilities, said Tuesday the organization’s most recent informal survey showed 57% of staff members had been vaccinated, “which does indicate improvement.” HCANJ’s goal is to have 75% of these workers immunized by June 1, he said.

The federal government’s revised long-term care initiative is designed to help facilities ensure that new residents — those who have moved in over recent weeks — and hesitant staff can still have easy access to the shots onsite.

“We appreciate the support at the federal and state levels to provide continuing access to the vaccine in our long-term care facilities,” Aronson said. “Our member facilities continue to educate and encourage vaccination, especially given the variant spread we are now seeing in New Jersey’s communities.”

In mid-March, the federal government began to shift vaccine allocations from its initial program with CVS and Walgreens to long-term care pharmacies that have established relationships with nursing homes, assisted-living sites and other facilities, according to the CDC’s website. Weekly shipments will now be directed to these drugstores, which will work with facilities to schedule clinics as needed.

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