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Officials: Vaccinating Ocean County Will Be a ‘Major Undertaking’ That Will Take Time

First Lady Tammy Murphy visits the Henry J. Austin Health Center vaccination site in Trenton on January 7, 2020. (Edwin J. Torres for the NJ Governor's Office)

First Lady Tammy Murphy visits the Henry J. Austin Health Center vaccination site in Trenton on January 7, 2020. (Edwin J. Torres for the NJ Governor’s Office)

Ocean County officials said hours after Gov. Phil Murphy expanded access to the coronavirus vaccine that the county’s efforts to vaccinate all of its seniors, first responders and younger people with underlying medical conditions will be a time-consuming task.

By Wednesday night, the Ocean County Health Department’s website was flooded with requests to make appointments, sometimes crashing the server. As soon as appointment dates were added, they were reserved within minutes. By 9 p.m., the time to reserve a vaccination at the county’s distribution site at Toms River High School North was backed up until Feb. 9. About 90 minutes later, the next available date for a vaccination was Feb. 25. Both Shop-Rite and Ocean Health Initiatives, two other entities which will be distributing vaccines, took down their appointment websites after demand skyrocketed.

Ocean County officials will face an especially heavy lift in its vaccination efforts since its population includes one of the largest senior citizen populations in the United States and, by far, the largest concentration in New Jersey. Ocean County is also a popular choice of residence for police officers and professional firefighters from around the state. The biggest issue facing health officials is manpower, said Commissioner Gerry P. Little, who serves as liaison to the Ocean County Health Department.

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“We have over 200,000 people who are over the age of 65 here in Ocean County, so by shear numbers, just by seniors alone, this is a massive undertaking,” Little said. “There are no unemployed nurses who are looking for work. Nurses are in demand across the entire country – hospitals can’t find nurses, they’re working six or seven days a week. We are actively doing everything we can to get the medical personnel to administer these vaccines.”

The county has funding available to hire nursing staff, and it already has, but the jobs are not easily filled. The commissioners, as a group, called on the state to deliver vaccinations to pharmacies and doctors’ offices since they already employ people trained to administer vaccinations and monitor them for allergic reactions. The county also has staff manning its coronavirus mobile testing facility at Ocean County College.

In three weeks since the county began administering the coronavirus vaccine, manufactured by Moderna, 4,109 shots have been given. All of those recipients will need to receive a second jab, meaning fewer appointments available to new patients. Health officials were hoping a vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson will be approved by the federal government next week since it requires just one administration.

“This is going to be a big challenge in Ocean County, in particular,” said Little. “We’ve only gotten 8,000 doses of vaccine. Three-thousand the first week and 5,000 this week. They will all be gone by the end of this week. It’s not only staffing, but the supply of vaccine.”

The state initially said it would vaccinate only those ages 75 and older in phase “1b,” but that was expanded to adults aged 65 and over and those between the ages of 16 and 64 with certain underlying medical conditions. That adds 200,000 of Ocean County’s 600,000 residents to the list of those eligible to receive the vaccine, overnight. There are also record numbers of new residents, especially on the county’s two barrier islands, since many part-time residents have moved to the Shore area permanently thanks to remote working.

“It’s essential that the state of New Jersey – they also don’t have a massive supply – get it out to the hospitals so the hospitals can become clinics,” said Little. “The hospitals need to step up and serve the people, and then they need to go to the pharmacies, and every single doctor’s office.”

The county does have experience in large-scale vaccination efforts, and plans to model at least some of the coronavirus vaccination methods on its annual flue shot clinics and the administration of the H1N1 vaccine several years ago. Supply – of both health professionals and the vaccine itself – will be what slows down the process.

Still, officials said they were optimistic.

“I always say that Ocean County is number one in everything we do, and that goes to the vaccine as well,” said Commissioner Virginia Haines.

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