Advocates push for centralized homebound vaccine plan in New Jersey

As New Jersey officials push to get more residents vaccinated, advocates are calling for them to make it easier for some of the most vulnerable people to get inoculated.

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Among the latest strategies to get more adults vaccinated against COVID-19 in New Jersey: offer free beer at select breweries. It’s part of a series of efforts Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday called “Operation Jersey Summer.”

But advocates for older adults say the state still needs to do more to make it easier for some of the most vulnerable residents to get protection from the virus.

Dawn Higgins, of Cherry Hill, was looking for someone to give the vaccine to her mother who requires 24-hour care and needs medical transport to leave the house.

“I tried the Department of Health and they explained that at this point, all they could do was suggest I try and get her to the vaccine center, which just in our case just wasn’t feasible,” she said.

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Finally, after asking around to people she knew, Higgins heard a local pharmacy was giving vaccinations to homebound residents. They were able to administer the first dose.

“We can breathe a little easier,” she said. “I can’t wait ‘til she’s got her second shot.”

Meanwhile, Roger Kerr and his wife are still trying to get her parents appointments, despite their being among the first people to pre-register in January and qualifying for shots in February.

“My wife has spoken to people both at the state level, at the county level, and at the local, municipal level every week — practically everyday,” he said, adding she also calls various organizations and government agencies.

Kerr and his wife live in Stamford, Connecticut, while their parents live in Bergen County. His mother-in-law suffered a stroke a few years ago and his father-in-law has difficulty getting around. Kerr said it would help if there was a centralized system for people in their situation.

“We understand that this is an enormous challenge,” Kerr said. “[But] you would just think by now they would have figured something out. Even if it isn’t an executable plan., it would be a plan for a plan.”

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AARP New Jersey has been urging the Murphy administration to take a statewide approach to vaccinating the state’s estimated 11,000 homebound residents and renewed their plea in a recent letter. So far, the advocacy group has not received a response.

State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said at a recent briefing the state’s plan for the homebound involves overseeing the local health departments “who have a responsibility … to vaccinate homebound residents.”

“Many of them have already mobilized those plans,” Persichilli said, adding that the state was also working with some visiting nurse associations.

Burlington and Camden counties, along with the city of Trenton, are among those that have locally managed homebound vaccination programs, relying on the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Gloucester County began scheduling homebound appointments on Monday.

But it’s still difficult for people to access the information they need to make appointments, said Katie York, associate state advocacy director for AARP New Jersey.

“Based on our outreach to some county health departments, some counties are doing one thing, others are doing another,” she said. “Some we didn’t get any information from them and some have even delegated the work to local municipalities.”

The organization argues the state does not have to reinvent the wheel and points to ways other states are making this process easier for those who have difficulty leaving home.

They point to Rhode Island, which has a form to fill out on that state’s main vaccination page specifically for people who are homebound. There are similar links in Connecticut and Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Massachusetts has a dedicated website and phone number.

“We believe that homebound individuals should have the same access as those who are by having the ability to go to a phone number or to the website where they can search for providers who can provide that homebound vaccine,” said Evelyn Liebman, director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey.

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