As N.J. expands vaccine eligibility, advocates say older adults are being left behind

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Close up hands of caregiver doctor helping old woman at clinic.

Close up hands of caregiver doctor helping older woman at clinic. (Rido81/BigStock)

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This month, New Jersey is significantly expanding the pool of residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, having recently added teachers and child care workers one week ahead of schedule.

Transportation workers, “additional public safety workers [and] additional high-risk individuals” will be eligible to book appointments on March 15. Clergy, elections and postal workers, as well as workers in the food and hospitality, elder care, warehousing and logistics industries are set to join them two weeks later.

Gov. Phil Murphy acknowledged this would make “several hundred thousand workers and residents” newly eligible, even as the state is still working out the logistics of getting shots into all of those arms — especially those of residents who are most at risk of developing more serious COVID-19 cases.

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Before Saturday, those who qualified for appointments included the most vulnerable residents, including people aged 65 and older and those aged 16 to 64 with certain medical conditions. The state also quietly expanded the list of eligible medical conditions.

Those in the original eligibility pool who are still in need of the vaccine will continue to have an “awful” time getting inoculated, said Brenda Seals, associate professor and chair of the public health department in the School of Nursing, Health and Exercise Science at The College of New Jersey.

“A lot of elderly and other people don’t even have emails,” she said. “That means that they will not be able to negotiate the internet to the point where they can actually even get on a waiting list.”

In addition to the difficulty in navigating the multiple online portals to get an appointment, some advocates are concerned the state is not doing enough to address inequities.

“We’re adding more people to the eligibility categories, but we’re not fixing the problems in the system that are creating barriers for the most at-risk residents,” said Evelyn Liebman, director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey.

She points to state statistics that show people aged 50 and older account for 95% of COVID-19 deaths; nearly 80% are those age 65 and older. Of the 2.5 million New Jersey residents who have been vaccinated so far, 42% were age 65 and above.

The state Health Department said it has been prioritizing vaccinations for people age 75 and older with vaccines set aside at specific sites, such as select Walmart, ShopRite, and Inspira Health locations, and the state’s six mega-sites.

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Seals says that’s a step in the right direction, but points out that people who need to be vaccinated still need to be matched with available shots.

“If you’re not very technologically savvy, you’re not going to sign up for four or five different spots,” she said, adding that some older people or someone with an underlying health condition might not be able to make a last-minute appointment to get vaccinated when they occur.

Liebman adds that it’s important to know how the state’s efforts to help vulnerable residents are going.

She said AARP is urging the administration to fix how the vaccine is distributed, and to put in place a plan to reach those who are homebound.

“It’s very good news that nursing homes have received vaccines and current residents have been vaccinated under the federal program,” she said, “But the vast majority of older residents, including those older residents with underlying medical conditions, are at home.”

Liebman also says there needs to be a centralized, easy-to-use registration system for those who can access the internet or a phone line to ensure older residents are prioritized.

The state’s vaccination call center (855-568-0545) temporarily stopped taking appointments in February. State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said at the time that more training was needed before the center could resume scheduling appointments. “Limited appointments” have been made since training has occurred, according to the department.

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