This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.
Workers at New Jersey’s coronavirus vaccination hotline made tens of thousands of calls to elderly residents and scheduled more than 6,000 appointments as part of a recent targeted effort to connect members of this vulnerable age group with COVID-19 vaccines.
And the initiative seems to have paid off. According to the state Department of Health, the percentage of New Jerseyans over age 75 — the group most at risk for death from the virus — who have received at least one COVID-19 shot nearly doubled since late last month. The DOH said it has since expanded the effort to focus on the wider 65-and-over demographic.
“We did that because our main goal through our vaccination program will always be first and foremost to prevent morbidity and mortality,” DOH Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Wednesday. “And those individuals that are 65 and older are accounted for 80% of our mortalities. Those 75 and older are clearly close to 50%.”
Nearly 61% of New Jerseyans over age 75 have now received at least one dose, up from 33% in late February, according to the health department. “We will continue this program until we reach 70%” of this age group, Persichilli said during the Murphy administration’s coronavirus briefing last week.
Gov. Phil Murphy has set an overall goal of vaccinating 70% of all eligible adults in New Jersey — or 4.7 million people — by early summer. So far, 3.3 million doses have been administered in the state, with at least 1.1 million people completing the immunization process. Two of the vaccines, by Pfizer and Moderna, require two shots, while the Johnson & Johnson version involves just one.
Seniors were critical of vaccine rollout
Murphy’s administration has faced criticism for some aspects of its vaccine rollout, including the online registration and appointment-scheduling system; it attracted particular wrath from elderly residents and their advocates, who said it was hard to navigate for those without technology skills. The state eventually added a telephone hotline that was overwhelmed by demand at first but has since been beefed up with additional staff and training.
Recently, the call center has been taking a more proactive approach, according to DOH representative Dawn Thomas. Since late February, workers there made more than 61,000 calls to individuals over age 75 who had signed up to be immunized through the online system, she said. They also sent more than 30,000 texts to people of this age group. As a result, more than 4,380 appointments were scheduled for these seniors, she said.
In early March, the call center started to cast a wider net. Thomas said since then workers have placed nearly 10,000 calls and sent 10,600 texts to New Jerseyans age 65 and over, a process that resulted in more than 2,000 people scheduling vaccination appointments. She said that callers also reached thousands of people in both age groups who had already been vaccinated.
According to U.S. census data, there are some 1.5 million New Jerseyans in this age group over age 65 — 16.6% of the state’s total population — and 638,000 of them are at least 75.
Tens of thousands of New Jersey seniors in nursing homes, assisted living and other long-term care have already also been immunized through a federal contract that tasked chain pharmacies CVS and Walgreens with organizing on-site vaccination clinics at these facilities. The health department announced in early March that the number of new cases and deaths declined 96% at these sites since early January, a drop it attributes in part to the vaccine rollout in long-term care.
Since last March, nearly 860,000 New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and more than 24,000 have died as a result. Residents over age 65 comprise more than 15% of these cases and 80% of the deaths. As a point of comparison, those ages 30 to 49 make up nearly one-third of the diagnoses, but only 4% of the fatalities, or less than 1,000 deaths.
Issues vaccinating high-risk residents
The Murphy administration has recently bolstered efforts to immunize certain high-risk populations, like Black and Hispanic communities — which are at greater risk for coronavirus-related hospitalization and death than their white counterparts. This has included partnerships with churches and other community groups to expand access and promote vaccine equity around the state. Still, just over 4.5% of the shots administered have gone to Black residents and 6.5% to Hispanics.
Murphy and other state officials have largely blamed a “supply-demand imbalance” for these disparities and frustrations, suggesting that New Jersey’s distribution system can boost output — and reduce racial and other coverage gaps — if more shots were available from federal sources. Murphy has predicted this distribution imbalance will change with an influx of Johnson & Johnson doses in the weeks to come.
“And as Judy said, we’re going to continue to do everything we can to reach out to the seniors and the other most vulnerable of our residents where we know based on fact, not speculation, where the virus has taken its heaviest toll,” Murphy said Wednesday.
Local health care providers have also sought creative ways to reach those most in need of protection from the deadly virus. Some have held special clinics for older patients, while others — like the Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey Community Health Center, in Keyport — have partnered with municipal senior centers and elder housing programs to expand access to the vaccine.
Christopher Rinn, the center’s CEO, said these alliances — with Asbury Park, Holmdel, Middletown, Red Bank and other communities — have allowed the federally qualified health center to vaccinate thousands of seniors in the region.
“The latest initiative is taking it to those who can’t make it out to a vaccine center,” Rinn said, describing a mobile program that will immunize people in their homes. “We are taking the shots to them,” he said.
Connecting by phone, email, and text
On the state level, according to the health department, it is using its recently established call center to connect eligible seniors with vaccination clinics in their communities. Using a list of individuals who had registered through the state’s vaccination website, and met the age requirements, operators made outbound calls to these people and worked with them to schedule appointments at immunization programs in the area. Email and text messages also helped these operators reach more seniors, DOH said.
The expanded program, which launched two weeks ago, targets all those over age 65, according to the health department. Anyone calling the hotline — 1-855-568-0545 — who identifies themselves as over that age will be routed to a special senior help line with agents specially trained to assist with the process, officials said.